An irate Saakashvili looks towards the lost land on the other side of the river from a big mural. This is the Georgian checkpoint, even if Georgia doesnâ€™t recognise any border here. Nor does anyone else.
After a brief but savage war back in 1992, the Abkhazians beat the Georgian troops with the help of the Russians and a group of volunteers from other Northern Caucasian republics, such as the recently deceased Shamil Basayev. Eduard Shevardnadze commanded his troops personally but narrowly escaped death afterwards in the siege of Sokhumi. Quoting Neal Ascherson, the British writer and journalist: “The Abkhaz were finally the owners of their own house. But the house had no roof and they wandered alone in its devastated rooms”.
It has been more than 13 years since Abkhazia became a de facto republic, only recognised by other non-recognised countries such as South Ossetia or the Republic of Transdniester. Still, the Abkhaz have managed to produce their own flag, car plates and 11 ministries. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs issues visas to those non-CIS travellers willing to visit the former “Georgian Riviera”, but hardly any can be found among the refugees gathering at the Georgian post.
In 1999, only those refugees from Gali, the region near the border, were allowed to return to their houses, or what was left of them. Today, some of them wait for the UN-sponsored white bus, whilst some others prefer to take the stroll across the Inguri on foot. Most of them are women dressed in black; widows with the pictures of their lost relatives hanging in badges on their black clothes. They carry bags full of goods, most of them bought at the street market in Zugdidi, the closest city to the de facto border. Zugdidi is the capital of Mingrelia or Samegrelo, which is how the locals call their region. It has its own distinctive language, Mingrelian, but unlike the Abkhaz or the Ossetes, Mingrelians never showed any will to secede from the Georgian mainland. Famous Mingrelians are Beria, the KGB leader, and Gamsakhurdia, post-Soviet Georgiaâ€™s first elected president. Today Mingrelia is a meeting point of refugees and armed people, who want a military assault on the breakaway region.
After a 500m walk, the silence is broken only by the running water of the Inguri. A metal sculpture of a gun with its cannon tied in a knot marks the beginning of the bridge, controlled by the Russian checkpoint. The alleged peace-corps, most of them soldiers under twenty, stare at the widows with boredom. Flaxen blond soldiers stand by their Kazakh looking mates by the barbed wire, which marks the corridor between the armoured vehicles. They also wear blue helmets, although not the UN troopsâ€™ sky-blue. In fact, everybody holds two passports: the Abkhaz, which is only valid inside the republic, and a Russian one, useful to sell hazelnuts on the Russian side of the border, or to study at a Russian university. Besides, the ruble is the currency of Abkhazia, and Russian language is co-official with Abkhaz. Needless to say that any attempt from Tbilisi to break into Abkhazia would be taken as an aggression on Russian citizens by Moscow. The MI-24 flying low over our heads makes it clear. Surprisingly, though, thereâ€™s no requirement to show your passport here.
More than 200.000 Georgians, most of them Mingrelians, fled Abkhazia after the war. Added to the humanitarian catastrophe, Georgia had to face the collapse of its tourist infrastructure and the consequent economic disaster – Abkhazia had produced 50% of the tourism benefits of the country. Besides, the majority of the hotels spread across Georgia were suddenly turned into “vertical refugee camps”, like the former Hotel Iveria: Once Intouristâ€™s â€œJewel of the Caucasusâ€, the Iveria, in downtown Tbilisi, became the symbol of the terrible living conditions of the refugees. From this tower block, the 800 or so refugees could enjoy the beautiful panoramic vistas over Tbilisi, yet they preferred to sacrifice these by closing their balconies with wooden planks. At a ratio of one room per family, balconies became an unnecessary luxury, which had to make place for a kitchen, complete with portable gas burner, an extra double dorm, or both.
Leaving the “peace” tanks behind, the refugees walk in silence across the long No Manâ€™s bridge towards the Abkhaz checkpoint. One cannot help thinking of GlienickeÂ´s bridge in Cold War Berlin; no spies exchange going on here, but still a spot between two blocks: Putinâ€™s Russia and the “Rose Revolution” Georgia, backed by Bush. Maybe due to the newly-acquired importance of a bridge, which just linked two provinces not long ago, workers with straw hats paint the banister in blue and white, and fill the potholes with asphalt in the humid, hot weather. Some of the pedestrians recognise a friend or a relative among the workers and stop for a chat in Mingrelian, and a gulp of water. I wonder which part of the border sponsored the rehabilitation. Maybe itâ€™s just the UN again, who wants the bus line as clean as it can get.
A couple of grey cows graze right below a bullet-holed panel that tells in Abkhaz, Russian and English that we are already in the “Republic of Abkhazia”. More barbed wire, two barracks, a tattooed soldier wearing a Stetson hat and another one leafing through a Russian porn magazine.
A third one with an Abkhaz flag sewed to his shoulder checks that my passport data matches that one in todayâ€™s visitors list.
â€œDabaiâ€, he says in Russian, “go ahead”.
Not “welcome to Abkhazia”, no football chat, no pleasantries. Maybe itâ€™s just too hot.
Taxi drivers gather next to their Lada Zhigulis. Just nearby, a white “Marshrutka” with a “Gali” signal on the dashboard gets filled with refugees in black, carrying the images of the dead.
Author â€“ Karlos Zurutuza