Ghosts of Sukhumi (Sukhumi, Abkhazia)
Ghosts roam Sukhumi’s streets. You may not see them. You may not hear them. But I assure you, they are there. And trust me, you don’t want to see them…ever. One can’t help but sense their presence. That’s as close as you want to get. There are mortals roaming these streets that see them in vivid high-definition and would give anything, I’m certain, to vanquish them. Try as they might, they will never succeed. Nor should they be allowed to forget. Never.
Shortly after arriving, I entered an upscale hotel in the town center hoping to find an English speaker, someone who could direct me to my intended homestay. I found my paladin, a woman named Alana working the front desk. Not only did she call someone to pick me up (she was friends with the wife of the son of the owners or something along those lines), she also changed money for me, called the Ministry Of Foreign Shit on my behalf, and even smiled. Oh, how I’ve come to appreciate a smile. Sometimes it pays to be tall and helpless. I discovered the homestay owners' daughter also spoke English. It was like friggin’ Christmas.
The lady of the house warned me about the Russian miscreant in the adjacent room. Apparently, he was an unsavory type. She repeatedly advised me to lock my door, put my bags in the wardrobe, and keep my window locked. My Russian is a little non-existent (the daughter was gone by then) so you could say I was a teensy confused. Her husband even put metal bars (I helped) on my window. Who the hell was this guy? Hitman? Bank robber? Insurance salesman?
I couldn’t get my Abkhaz visa for another two days as I landed on a Saturday; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t open until Monday morning. Likewise with the banks. Just to reiterate, I entered the “country” first and then received my official permission to be there three days later. Ummmm…’kay.
To make matters more complex, there were no ATMs in Sukhumi and credit cards were accepted nowhere (Visa lied. Clearly, they are not everywhere I want to be). Luckily, my new friend Alana changed enough money to tide me over. And so I wandered.
Before arriving, I’d a read about the Georgian-Abkhazian Conflict, the War in Abkhazia (1992-1993), and the Sukhumi Massacre. A campaign of ethnic cleansing began before, during, and after the fall of Sukhumi on September 27, 1993 perpetrated by a combination of Abkhaz separatists, northern Caucasian peoples, Cossacks, and Russians. Under a cease-fire brokered by the UN and guaranteed by Russian peacekeepers, Georgian military forces withdrew all tanks and heavy artillery from the city. Many Georgians put their faith in the accord and remained in hopes of a peaceful resolution.
It was not to be.
The separatists violated the agreement. They overran Sukhumi and thus began the systematic torture, rape, and murder of ethnic Georgians.
As I rambled the streets, I tried to imagine the horror. Not so easy when confronted with the throngs of Russian tourists plying the beaches and city center. Yet, there were still monuments to war strewn about the city, not the least of which was the Abkhazian government building gutted during the conflict. Many members of the deposed government refused to flee, a decision that led to their not so glorious deaths.
The ruin still stood, serving as a grim reminder to the tragedy that unfolded all those years ago. I wonder if the burnt shell remained as a monument to independence and victory over the Georgians. Directly in front was the “Alley of Glory” memorial dedicated to Abkhazia's fallen war heroes. Hard to believe its location was a coincidence.
The derelict building was open to anyone. I'd half expected someone to come along and thwart my reconnaissance mission, but it never happened. I had free run of the joint and even made my way to the roof. Wandering through the debris one cannot help feel haunted by what must have occurred there and elsewhere throughout the city. You could say I was unsettled while meandering the halls of a burned-out, war-torn building alone, even during the day. Large volumes of trash and hypodermic needles speckled about the lower levels did little to quell my anxiety. However, I had the place to myself…unless you count the phantoms. Thankfully, they were invisible, at least to me. Thankfully, they weren’t looking for me.
Although signs of improvement were everywhere, there were constant reminders. Destroyed houses and bullet-ridden walls in the center weren’t but five minutes from the seaside promenade. And although Sukhumi exhibited hints of subdued vibrancy, it had a quasi-deserted feel to it, as if something was missing, as if something was not quite right. A product of my heightened awareness? Perhaps. But then again…
If only I could speak Russian. The stories those people must’ve had locked inside them. I briefly wallowed in self-condemnation for not being brighter, for not having the language skills to engage the locals. Damn me.
I patrolled the seafront and whiled away hours on a bench staring out to sea letting each thought fade into the next along a random chain devoid of coherence. My existential reveries had the aid of homemade wine. You'd be an asshole not to sip the local brew. As I sat there, paddling the depths of my consciousness, I envisioned the rescue operation of long ago as a flotilla tried to save desperate civilians from impending doom.
The beach, rocky and a tad forlorn, is underwhelming though hordes of sunbathers seem to mind little. I believe the concrete two-story structures lining the shore have something to do with the construction, docking, launching, and loading of ships. As a landlubbing scallywag, I can’t be sure. What I do know is the majority are in a state of advanced decay. The teenagers using them as a diving platform appeared to have no complaints, however.
At one end of the beach rested the rusting, slightly charred corpse of a small petroleum tanker not two hundred feet from frolicking beachgoers. Not sure why it’s there, but not climbing aboard and playing shipwreck was deemed inexcusable by my inner child. Never flout your inner child. [Author's Note: It appears the ship was removed as it's now missing from satellite imagery.]
SOMEONE WAS NOT PLEASED WITH THIS POST. I RECEIVED THE FOLLOWING E-MAIL IN RESPONSE:
I just read your travel diaries in Abkhazia and I am not surprised that all your sources comes from Georgian side which is all biased and also Wikipedia which is not a reliable source.
For example: Before arriving I had a read a little about the Georgian-Abkhazian Conflict, the War in Abkhazia (1992-1993), and the Sukhumi Massacre. A campaign of ethnic cleansing began before, during, and after the fall of Sukhumi on September 27, 1993 perpetrated by a combination of Abkhaz separatists, northern Caucasian peoples, Cossacks, and Russians. In accordance with a cease-fire brokered by the UN and guaranteed by Russian peacekeepers Georgian military forces withdrew all tanks and heavy artillery from the city. Many ethnic Georgians, putting their faith in the agreement, remained in hopes of a peaceful resolution. It was not to be. On September 27th Abkhaz separatists violated the agreement and began their siege. As the city was overrun so began the systematic torture, rape, and murder of ethnic Georgians.
I strongly recommend you to talk with the scholars whom are the expert on Georgian - Abkhaz conflict.
I should remind you that Abkhazians are lost 4% population in that war and the most important thing is Abkhazians did not seek this war but it's imposed on them by Shevardnadze.
I strongly recommend you watch the documentary film "Absence of Will" by Georgian director Mamuka Kuparadze: http://vimeo.com/8826939
And here is an excellent commentary about the documentary: http://www.abkhazworld.com/articles/analysis/406-absence-of-will-commentary.html
This is what Georgian General Karkarashvili says:
[11.52 sec.] Gia Karkarashvili [General - Army Commander of the State Council of Georgia]: In the first place, the Ossetian war [1991-92] in Tskhinvali had just ended. The Georgia National Guard suffered heavy losses. We were exhausted. That’s why I thought it was reckless to go into Abkhazia. But I was told that the 13th-14th August was a good time to launch a military operation because the Russian Parliament was in recess. Unfortunately, we entered Abkhazia in a very disorganized way. We didn’t even have a specific goal [REMEMBER the claims about protect the railway] and we started looting villages along the way. As a result, in the space of a month we managed to make enemies of the entire local population, especially the Armenians(*).
And here is an excerpt from UNPO's report:
‘...When Georgian troops under general command of Defense Minister General Tengiz Kitovani first entered Sukhumi on August 14, Georgian soldiers attacked non-Georgian civilians, beat them, killed many, robbed them, and looted their houses and apartments. Reports of attacks on Abkhazian, Armenian, Russian, and other non-Georgian minority civilians, including killing, torture, and burning, looting or smashing of houses or other belongings, originate from many regions of Abkhazia under Georgian military control and for the entire period since August 14.’ [UNPO: November 1992 Mission to Abkhazia, November 1992, b. Human Rights and Cultural Destruction] http://www.unpo.org/downloads/AbkGeo1992Report.pdf
Unfortunately you completely rejected the Abkhazian side and used only biased Georgian sources. Probably you even didn't research on what you read in Wikipedia but just accepted all of them as a truth.
I hope that you can use more academical and reliable sources to see different otherwise you will be one of the victims of Georgian black propoganda.
Like as we see an excellent example at:
Who invaded Abkhazia in 1992?
Please read what Shevardnadze says:
TO WHICH I REPLIED:
Dear Ms. A,
Wikipedia is not research, nor do I base anything solely on it or any encyclopedia for that matter. I merely provide links for those folks that know little or nothing about the conflict, i.e. just about everyone in the west. If anyone draws ultimate conclusions from Wikipedia or from one or two blog post (i.e. mine) then they are idiots. I am not a historian. I am not an expert. I am merely an average person trying to understand the seemingly irrational. I did more than just read, I actually took the time to visit. I would have spent much more time there but unfortunately I do not speak Russian and Abkhazia is cut off from the international banking system, so money was an issue.
Both sides committed terrible acts. Nothing about what has occurred in that region over the last twenty years is simple and cannot be stated, by anyone, in black and white terms. I do not reject the Abkhazian side because the Abkhazian side has so many intricate facets. There were not just Abkhazians involved but a motley crew of unsavory elements from all over the Caucus region. Many innocent Abkhazians, as well as innocent Georgians, were caught in the middle of a terrible ordeal. Shevardnadze was a scumbag but in that conflict there is plenty of blame to spread around on both sides.
I will check out all the information you have provided and I certainly appreciate your time and effort. If I could I would return to Abkhazia right now so we could sit down and discuss the history of it. I would have given anything to meet a person like yourself while I was in Sukhumi but I was not so fortunate. I have an extremely open mind and will listen to anyone that want to discuss such issues. In the next few days I have a few more posts concerning my visit to Abkazia being published on my site. Please read them and let me know your views. When I have time I will incorporate the information you have below into my postings. I recommend that you copy and paste your e-mails into the 'Comments' section beneath each post. This will give anyone reading my blog posts a deeper understanding.
Thank you for contacting me. I do appreciate it.
TO WHICH SHE REPLIED:
I am not living in Abkhazia but in Hague, Netherlands. Let me know if you get here. I would like to talk with you.
I've visited Abkhazia several times as you did and focused on Georgia(n)-Abkhazia(n) confict (but NOT Georgian-Russian conflict in Abkhazia). Unfortunately many Westeners using only Georgian sources which is have lots of biased information and completely reject Abkhazian side.
I am glad that you will check the links which I sent you. Especially the commentary can be very useful to understand the conflict.
You can read also Ucha Nanuashvili's letter:
And please check end of this page:
You will see how the Georgian propoganda machine works.
There are many things to say about that, I don't know which one I should mention.
TO WHICH I REPLIED:
You took the time to contact me and I must repeat my gratitude for your insight and willingness to exchange views. I do appreciate it. I believe that anything less than complete candor and frankness concerning on my part would be disrespectful to you so here goes:
Firstly, I believe you took some of what I wrote out of context. The excerpt you provided from my blog was referring to the fall of Sukhumi specifically which would naturally focus on the actions of the Abkhazians and their allies as they retook the city. There is little doubt that horrible atrocities were committed during that operation just as there is little doubt that the Georgian army committed horrible atrocities when they entered Abkhazia. I don't believe you read my post the day before where, in addition to the Wikipedia articles, I also had a link to the Human Rights Watch report and to a book ("Georgia Diaries") written by American journalist Thomas Goltz who spent years covering the Caucasus region. Also, although Wikipedia is merely an encyclopedia it does provide references with which to delve deeper into the research. Wikipedia is not the final word on anything, only the beginning, and should only be used as a tool to get started.
Second, although I found "Absence of Will" to be interesting it was, in my opinion, not terribly enlightening and a bit naive. In my opinion it was not a professional effort and was more anecdotal than it was hard-hitting journalism. It breezes right over all the intricate complexity that was part and parcel of not only the conflict but of the Caucasus region in general . So many different forces were at play at that time it is difficult, even now, to adequately grasp the situation. The former Soviet Republics (Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia) in the area were in chaos back then. The fall of communism blew the lid off years of repression and discrimination. It was a free for all and everyone was attempting to fill the vacuum left by the Kremlin. This included elements of the Russian government. It was a complete mess and, as a result, a lot of people did a lot of terrible things.
If you read all of my blog posts concerning both Georgia and Abkhazia you will see that my view is not one-sided at all and that I made an attempt to understand all sides. Mistakes were made by many but I cannot, after all that I have read, place the onus of responsibility on Georgia. I am not even sure what 'Georgia', or 'Abkhazia' for that matter, was back then. Who was really in control? What was the level of Russian interference? American interference? It is difficult to say but I can tell you this: At no time did I come to a final conclusion regarding the Georgia-Abkhaz Conflict. Much more research would be needed. Any sympathies I have for Georgia stem much more from its recent relations with Russia. This is a gross oversimplification but Georgia wants to 'Go West' (i.e. join NATO, the European Union, etc.) and Russia does not like it one bit. This is at the heart of the recent war between the two. Another book I would highly recommend is "A Little War That Shook The World" by Ronald Asus.
Bottom Line: I think the origin of that conflict lies within the complex geopolitical make up and history of the region and cannot be summed up neatly into bullet points. And, truth be told, how different are Georgians and Abkhazians, really?
I hope this helps to elucidate my position a bit more clearly. Again, I appreciate the discussion and find it to be quite stimulating.
TO WHICH SHE REPLIED:
Here you are:
And please, ask this question yourself: Who started the war?
Georgi Anchabadze gives answer in "naive" documentary:
Reporter: What did the Abkhaz want?
[21:12 sec.] Georgi Anchabadze [Historian]: Perhaps they wanted complete independence from Georgia. They certainly didn’t want to join Russia again. Even now they don’t want that(*). They wanted more real political rights within Georgia.
Anchabadze: They offered three choces:
1. Georgia should become a federation with Abkhazia.
2. Abkhazia should become a republic within Georgia.
3. A two-chamber parliament should be set up.
Georgia said no to all of these things.
Georgians have big power to spread what happened them also their black propaganda. Their backers help them as well. Abkhazia trying to tell their point of view but others even doesn't listen them.
At the end of "Absence of will" documentary can be naive... How pity...