In search of a husband missing in Georgia's forgotten war
The cameras have moved on, but debate over land rights and ethnicity remains as raw as ever, writes Tara Bahrampour in Sukhumi, Abkhazia
THIS AUTUMN, as I was preparing to travel to the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia, one of the cafeteria ladies in the journalism school where I teach stepped out from behind the pastry counter and asked a favour.
“Go talk to my neighbours,” she said, writing down an address in Abkhazia’s capital, Sukhumi. “Find out what happened to my husband.”
During a year of teaching in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, and writing about Georgia for the Washington Post, I’d heard many emotional stories about Abkhazia, a wedge of semi-tropical beaches and snowcapped mountains whose bid for independence from Georgia in the early 1990s launched an ethnic bloodbath in which both sides behaved atrociously.
Many people I met in Tbilisi had left behind homes there. But Mzia, the cafeteria lady, had lost something more, her husband Jinori.
On September 27th, 1993, Georgia’s army was routed from Sukhumi, a city of graceful villas that housed a mix of ethnic Georgians, Abkhaz and Russians. Fearing reprisals, tens of thousands of Georgians had crowded onto boats or begun an exodus through a high mountain pass.
Mzia and her two teenage daughters left Jinori to guard the house and trudged for seven days through freezing rain and snow. They eventually made it to Tbilisi, along with many of Abkhazia’s other 250,000 displaced Georgians. But Jinori never arrived. Months later, Mzia heard from another refugee that he had been killed by Abkhaz militiamen in or around the family house.
Georgia caught the world’s attention last summer during its brief war with Russia. The cameras have largely moved on, but here, the debate over land rights and ethnicity remains as raw as ever.
Despite the Georgian government’s penchant for posting highway signs showing the distance to Sukhumi, most Georgians can’t go there. For them, Abkhazia has become a symbol of more stable times, a measuring stick against which nothing Georgia now has can compare.
“You have to smell the air in Abkhazia,” I was told by friends who remembered it. “Nowhere else has that air.” The battle over that air, and the ground beneath it, helped lead to last summer’s conflict. In August, Russia recognised Abkhazia as a state in its own right, along with Georgia’s other breakaway territory, South Ossetia.
For refugees who fled these places 15 years ago, Moscow’s recognition changed little. Many of the displaced still live in Soviet-era dorm rooms provided by the Georgian government (which continues to insist that they will eventually be able to return home), stuck with memories of their seaside houses and balmy evenings on which, if you believe the rosiest accounts, multi-ethnic neighbours sang in the street, plucked fruit off trees and never thought of nationality.
“Why did Mzia send you here? Does she want her house back?” In the damp, chilly air, the wizened Russian woman narrowed her blue eyes at me and my translator.
“No, no,” I said, though I didn’t know whether Mzia still wanted the two-story stucco house. “She just wants to know what happened to her husband.”
The woman, who had lived in this ramshackle Sukhumi alley for 55 years, considered me, then spoke carefully. “She left with two children, and the husband stayed here. And on the third day came the Abkhaz.”
She pointed at another woman in a nearby garden. “She knows everything.” Masha was also an ethnic Russian, her face a web of wrinkles, her tall frame wrapped in woollen skirts and shawls.
In her kitchen, we squeezed around a table beside the stove, and she brewed Turkish coffee and told us what had happened to Mzia’s husband.
“He stayed with us three days,” she said, gesturing toward the rooms she and her husband had shared with Jinori when armed men roamed the streets and shots rang out through the gardens.
What did he talk about? What was he thinking? Masha shook her head. “He just hid here, that’s all,” she said. “After three days, it became quiet, and he went home.”
Taking him in was nothing special; it was what neighbours do. This banding together, this sharing of food and wood and human contact, is what people here say has allowed them to survive the waves of violence that periodically crash in.
I sensed it in August, when Russian tanks appeared to be approaching Tbilisi; I felt almost magically protected by my alley full of people who knew me and the understanding that, whatever happened, we would meet it together.
“I grew up here,” a friend told me, “but I didn’t really know my neighbours until we had to burn chairs in the courtyard to stay warm.”
But keeping one another warm is not always enough. A few days after Jinori left Masha and her husband, the couple found him lying in his own home, his body strafed by machine gun fire. Two other Georgians living on the street had also been shot.
Masha and her husband and some other neighbours wrapped the men in blankets and buried each one in his own yard.
“Such is what happened,” Masha said. Pointing at our untouched cups, she said, “Drink your coffee.” Masha recalled a pre-war existence in which “we didn’t know who was what nation. And then the war started, and it became, ‘You’re this kind of person, you’re that kind of person’.” The people now living in Mzia’s house were good people, she said. Family people. But Masha didn’t feel comfortable introducing us to them, so we thanked her and stood up.
“Tell Mzia that Masha says hi,” she said.
We had seen the inhabitants of Mzia’s house when we’d first arrived. One, a strapping dark-haired woman, had spat out, “The people you are looking for moved away – that’s all you need to know.” Then she’d stalked inside. Now, as rain fell, we saw an old man peering out over the garden gate, only his eyes and black cap visible.
To my surprise, he answered our questions. “We moved here after the war,” he said. “The government gave me this house.”
He had worked in Abkhazia’s coal mines since the 1960s, but he wasn’t originally from here. He was from Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital – and the epicentre of last summer’s war. I asked whether he still had relatives there. Of course, he said, although he was sure that some of them must have been killed in August. He had called, but nobody had answered.
It is hard for an American journalist in Georgia to get into Tskhinvali, I told him. But someday I might, and if I did, would he like me to try to find his family? “How is it,” the old man suddenly said, “that guests are standing in the rain? Aren’t you hungry?”
The gate swung open. He ushered us into the house and told his daughter, the woman who had snapped at us earlier, to make coffee. She glowered and disappeared into the kitchen.
The old man, Grisha, pushed a bowl of red apples toward us. “From your garden?” I asked.
He nodded and smiled, and as I bit into one, I couldn’t help wondering whether Mzia had once eaten this fruit.
Like many Abkhaz and Ossetians, Grisha was furious with the Georgians – for sins from centuries past and from last summer, when, he said, they had “killed children with tanks”.
But until 15 years ago, South Ossetia had been a multi-ethnic fabric of villages knitted together by marriage and proximity. As the old man railed against Georgians, I asked a question I hoped would not anger him: Growing up in Tskhinvali, had he had any Georgian friends?
He didn’t miss a beat. “We even baptised each other,” he said. “But now we hate each other. See what it came to?” His daughter set out cups of Turkish coffee and asked why Mzia had sent me.
“Are they still trying to come back here? Well, I wouldn’t even let her come here if she wanted . . . If Mzia’s so interested, tell her, ‘Here live Ossetians, which you people bombed’. And now we live here.”
I did not tell Mzia all that she said. When I got back to Tbilisi, I told her about her old home’s leaky roof. I played her a recording of Masha speaking about Jinori.
Mzia sat at a cafeteria table and listened, nodding and dabbing her eyes. The other cafeteria women sat protectively behind her, and some students and faculty pulled up chairs.
Was it beautiful, the students asked, this Sukhumi that they were too young to remember? It was. The air smelled of eucalyptus, the sea was calm. But stately old homes lay in ruins, the streets were eerily empty, and many people seemed grim and defensive.
Since my trip there in October, a bridge between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia has reportedly been blown up. More Russian troops have entered South Ossetia. In my notebook, I have the names of the old man’s nephew and the directions to his house. “Go,” he said. “Find it.” And as we stepped outside, he opened my translator’s bag and filled it with apples. – (LA Times-Washington Post service)
Tara Bahrampour is a Washington Post staff writer and the author of To See and See Again: A Life in Iran and America