Gali Georgians have to cross the so called Georgian-Abkhazian border, part of the ugly heritage of the nineties, on a daily basis. The perimeter is fully-controlled by Russian soldiers, namely employees of the Federal Security Service, while their Abkhazian colleagues have only a secondary role.
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People carrying heavy bags in the heat approach in groups; older women with sad faces; drivers waiting for passengers; taxes and minivans. This is the daily picture you see at the Inguri River Bridge, the so called Georgian-Abkhazian border. It is the ugly heritage of the nineties. Although there is no more shooting, the echoes of war are still being heard.
“I’m tired dear,” this is what each elder Gali resident coming from that side tells us. The 1992-1993 war took their wealth, housing, social status, health; plus one thing that is the hardest to recover from and recreate, the lives of their loved ones. Still, life goes on. The Georgian population still remains in Gali region despite the anti-Georgian policy of the Abkhazian administration. From occupied Abkhazian, on the left bank of the Inguri River, some come for education, some for medical treatment, some for work, and some to visit relatives.
The so called ‘border’ that Gali Georgians have to cross every day is opened by ‘border guards’ at 8am and closed at 8pm. The perimeter is fully-controlled by Russian soldiers, namely employees of the Federal Security Service, while their Abkhazian colleagues have only a secondary role (generally limited to taking bribes).
Tamar Sharia, from Chuburkhinji village, stated, “it is calm now; life is getting in order slowly. Although we will not be able to recreate the life as it was before the war, but we still have sustained our houses more or less. People try to search for sources of income. Boys from our village often go to work; some to Tbilisi and some to Zugdidi and some to Gagra and Sokhumi. They work there and are being paid for work without problem. We also have a small farm and we help my son and his family. My husband needs a heart surgery and we are now going to see doctors in Kutaisi. Government covers 70% of the expenses and we pay the other 30%. If we were Abkhzians, for example from Gudauta, the state would cover the expenses fully. Is this fair?! Still, we have some benefits; for example our children can study in universities free of charge.”
The majority of Georgians living in Gali region have Abkhazian passports. According to them, the dilemma forced them to take the passports, otherwise they would have faced serious problems. Many of Gali residents have both Abkhazian and Georgian passports. It is noteworthy that people living in other regions of Abkhazia, including ethnic Abkhazian citizens, also have Georgian passports. In addition, Sokhumi de facto authorities also consider local the Georgian population as a Fifth Column, accusing them of close contacts with Tbilisi. Probably due to those and other internal political nuances, Abkhazian president, Raul Khajimba, has even taken their right to vote.
Local Georgians speak with admiration about how an Abkhazian ‘border guard’ saved a child from Gali who required emergency medical care after a car accident, but his parents did not have Abkhazian passports. The Abkhazian law enforcer seized the moment and let them through before the arrival of his Russian colleagues. It is still noteworthy that they never forget the murder of Giga Otkhozoria by Rashid Kanjiogli in 2016. According to them, the reason was that Otkhozoria defended one of the elder Georgians, who did not have documents, which causeda fight. The murderer was fired, but has not yet been punished.
Davit Jalagonia, from Gali, described how, our “main problem are the Russians. We have more or less regulated relations with Abkhazian long time ago. Our guys go to work to Sokhumi and Gagra very often. They also come here and buy from us cheese, nuts, fruits and vegetables. There is no hostility between ordinary people. Still, the real power is in the hands of Russians, which complicates the situation. I am sure the war would not have happened either, if it was not for them; but what has happened, has happened… While neither Russian soldiers do anything wrong to us, it is still so bad when you have to ask permission to strangers for moving around your own land; and when you never know what they can do next”.
One of the main problems for Gali residents is the high level of unemployment and criminality. Robberies increase rapidly during the so called “nut season”, when the locals are collecting the nut harvest.
Lasha Gabisonia, from Khurcha, remarked how, “we go to Gali for seasonal work. We gather nuts and after we there is possibility we to Ochamchire or Tkvarcheli to work at small construction sites. We are always paid; have never had problems with that. We are only afraid of robbers. It is the locals who do it; rob their own people. Only a Georgian would wear a mask; Abkhazians are not afraid of being recognized. They rob their own people. It has happened when somebody has recognized their own relative in a robber. That is the main problem that must be taken care of, but there is no police and order in Abkhazia”.
Russian so-called ‘border guards’ frequently detain local Georgians for “border trespassing”. If a person is registered in Gali region and has an Abkhazian passport, then he pays 1000 rubble (GEL 35) fine. The fate of those detained who do not have Abkhazian citizenship is a lot harder. A criminal case is opened and freedom costs a minimum 100,000 rubbles (GEL 4,000). Here, just like inside Tskhinvali occupied region, kidnapping locals and requesting fine for their freedom has become a source of additional income for Russian soldiers. Due to that, at Inguri and Khurcha village river crossings there are now Georigan law enforcers. They check the identity of those going to and from the occupied territory and warn those not holding Abkhazian passports about the possible threats they may face if they are detained by Russian ‘border guards’.
Curing the wounds of war by Abkhazia is hampered by the unstable political and hopeless economic situation. Despite everything, the locals stubbornly try to keep up with life, to support themselves and to at least partially return their property taken away from them after the military action. To achieve these goals they have to struggle to overcome many barriers and hampering factors.
I didn’t notice when talking to all these people how the flow of those crossing the bridge stopped. It was 8pm. Russian ‘border guards’ again closed the so called ‘border’. Will they open it tomorrow? You have a sudden, but logical question – will it be opened tomorrow? Nobody knows. As Sir Winston Churchill once said, “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.
Vakhtang Shamugia was born in Sukhumi (currently de facto capital of Abkhazia) and is currently an IDP living in Tbilisi. He is a PhD candidate in Conflict Analysis at Georgian Technical University. He currently works for the periodical The Forum as editor. His field of expertise focuses on the Balkans, Transnistria, and the Caucasus.
The Civil Forum for Peace is a member of the Global Coalition for Conflict Transformation, comprised of organizations committed to upholding and implementing the Principles of Conflict Transformation.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.