My Home Abkhazia
I met Mzia Tsaava in February 2003. She lives on the ninth floor in the old dormitory block of Tbilisi’s now dilapidated Industrial College. The building has been used to house refugees from Abkhazia for ten years. The single small lift that serves all of its 800 occupants grinds and grunts as it slowly makes its way up to the ninth floor. Without a ceiling, the lifts worrying state of repair is plain to see. More often than not, this ancient piece of machinery is out-of-order leaving only the stairs, another one of this building’s many tricky obstacles.
As the lift jumps to a halt the other passenger smiles as he forces open the doors. I pass four young men playing a game of cards as I make my way down a dark corridor that leads to Mzia’s room. The walls are filthy, cracked and crumbling and many of the old dormitory doors are missing, replaced with old blankets. Pipes and wires hang uselessly from the walls and the ceiling and every now and again I can feel water dripping on my head. The door is opened and I am greeted with great enthusiasm. Mzia Tsaava has jet-black hair and dark brown eyes. I estimate that she must be in her late forties, nicely dressed, with a well-practiced and warm smile.
Her dormitory room is small. In the cramped entrance hall there is a kitchen to the left, no larger than five foot square. In her other and only room, there is a bed at the far end. A sofa and chairs, set around a small table and just a few other necessary pieces of furniture, take up the rest of the space. The room is simply decorated, warm, clean and homely.
We sit down to eat and drink a generous spread of traditional Georgian food and wine and are joined by a number of her neighbours.” I arrived here ten years ago to the day”. Mzia began. “I came with nothing, only the clothes on my back, alone and without my husband; he was a police man and was killed in the fighting at Sokhumi by Abkhazian soldiers.” She pauses as all in the room bowed their heads and then raise their glasses to remember her loss.” I walked here from Sokhumi with many others. When we arrived we were brought to this building, there was nothing here. There were no windows, nothing on the walls, no furniture. It was filthy. Just nothing.” It was a terrible war, friends that I once had turned on me and my family, forcing us out. All I have now are my dreams of my homeland and my dreams of returning, I hope it will be so one day. Children are our hope”. She pauses.
“I love the children. I teach the infants and young who live here in this place. I was a teacher in Abkhazia and I am now a teacher here to, so I tell them of their homeland and that they might one day see where they came from”. Mzia Tsaava is lucky compared to other refugees. She is not starving, she is able to work and she is able to find happiness in the children she teaches. But she only lives a day’s journey from the home she wishes to return to.
A stone’s throw from the Georgian parliamentary building, stand’s the hotel Iveria. Run-down and worn-out, its rapidly ageing concrete walls once boasted the finest rooms in Tbilisi. In its day, when this region was a part of the Soviet Union, it was nearly impossible to get a room, unless you were someone of notoriety or notable wealth. The hotel is now home to more than 1000 refugees who fled the war in Abkhazia. In Tbilisi itself there are over 100,000 refugees from Abkhazia. The city hotels were made available, as well as many blocks of flats, to accommodate the influx. It seems a long time since Georgia was once the place where wealthy Muscovites spent their summers. From the Black sea-coast in Abkhazia, once known as the Russian Riviera, to Tbilisi and the mountains that cut the Caucasus’s in half, it was without doubt one of the jewels of the Union, lost to independence during the Soviet break-up.
The war in this region began after Georgia broke away from Russia. Abkhazian decided to pursue their wish of becoming an autonomous republic and used the opportunity of Georgian independence to do just that. The region’s population was nearly 50% Georgian, 17% Abkhazian and the rest made up of Russians, Greeks and some Armenians. Neighbours and friends turned on each other, fuelled by political propaganda. The ethnic Georgians became the main focus of aggression and were forced to flee. Attacked in their homes and in the streets, many were killed as they tried to escape.
Others found their way across the border to Russia. Some left by boat, sailing around the Black Sea coast to the Georgian town of Batumi, but the majority found their way, on foot and with only what they were wearing, hundreds of miles across the mountains to Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. Abkhazia has always been a part of Georgia but like so many regions within other countries it has its own culture and beliefs. Abkhazian religion in Georgia is referred to as, “heathen”, a form of idol worship. The year-long war in Abkhazia resulted in more than 100,000 deaths, both Abkhazian and Georgians, and forced over 350,000 people to leave the region to claim refugee status elsewhere. A constant wish to return home to Abkhazia has in many ways discouraged people from integrating with Georgians. At the main market place this mentality is apparent. Administered and used by Abkhazian refugees, the indigenous Georgian population is forced to accept the business arrangement. It is a place not welcoming of strangers. To this day refugees are still there, still given their electricity, water and gas for free while others in the city struggle to pay their bills let alone own find work.
For the people of the Iveria hotel things are not that simple; they are still a people without a homeland and however much they have achieved since arriving with so little, most still dream of going home.
A room, that in some cases shelters as many as six family members, was never the long-term plan but with the next generation now becoming part of Tbilisi life and another being born into it, the dream of returning home will slowly seem less and less achievable.
In the run down town of Zugdidi, on Georgia’s border with Abkhazia, one can really begin to get a better understanding of how serious the problem of Abkhazia is for its people who are so desperate to return. Zugdidi’s population is poor and lifeless. Its walls are crumbling and crime here is a way of life for many. Murders go un-investigated, thieves and pick pockets roam the streets unhindered by authorities and politicians, ignored by Tbilisi, line their pockets and make their own rules. This is Georgia’s “wild west”.
Zugdidi is home to more than 120,000 Abkhazian Georgian refugees but the story here is very different to that of Tbilisi. These really are a forgotten people. Three miles out-of-town and across the Inguri Bridge lie’s the Gali district of Abkhazia. Some of the fiercest fighting of the war happened here. Armed gangs and lawless groups of criminals rule this land. The trade in stolen cars, drugs and arms is well-known but little ever seems to be done about it. Every day, with special passes, thousands of the refugees are forced to run the gauntlet of the oppressive Russian peacekeepers and the criminal gangs that roam freely. Since the war ended these people have walked the many miles from their wretched makeshift homes, to their land and livestock across the border, every day under constant threat of reprisals. In ten years many lives have been lost, many forced to give up their land because of the constant threat of danger. Opportunists, who prey on these people’s vulnerability, now occupy the homes they once lived in.
Conversation with people here is brief, for guests are a great rarity and usually not entirely trusted. Many feel Georgia should take back Abkhazia by any means necessary and vent their anger on the politicians for ten years of broken promises. Still they dream, and in a small room on the ground floor decorated with cigarette packets and pictures torn from magazines, an old woman, maybe seventy years of age, sitting on an old prison bed smile’s as she says in a quiet and relaxed voice, “One day I will return to my home Abkhazia. Even if only to sink beneath the ground”.
Photography and writing by Thomas W Morley