The road to the Georgian border is covered in potholes. Our car bounces so much I start to hiccup.
“You don’t mind we’re driving in the opposite lane?” I asked Ruslan Kishmariya, presidential representative in the Galsk region.
“How else can we pass?” he said surprised.
Several UN jeeps drove passed us loudly.
Even the Abkhazian Army’s banner is written in two languages — Russian and English.
“Ahа, there goes the ‘tourists,'” Kishmariya said, laughing angrily. “They drive back and forth all day long, spying and not doing a single thing. And fairytale wages! Six years ago, the Georgian ‘Zviadists’ took a Slovak peacekeeper hostage. He sat in the mountains, drank Cha-Cha, ate well and played cards the whole time. His wife later came to see him. She begged the Zviadists to keep him captive longer. The UN was paying the hostage $15,000 per day! Of course, they let the Slovak go and the Zviadists released a tape of the negotiations with his wife. I can’t stand these guys. They come from Sri Lanka or Pakistan to teach me how to live in my land?! Go take care of your own country first! Recently a delegation from the EU parliament came to see me at my office. They said: ‘We thank your separatist state for allocating two hours for negotiations.’ ‘What kind of state?’ I asked. ‘Separatist,’ they said. ‘Aha, so it’s like that!’ I said. And within 8 minutes they were gone.”
The Galsk region is a territory housing a large population of Megrelians. After the war, nearly 50,000 Georgian refugees returned to Galsk.
“The Georgians were shouting to the international community: ‘What a disgrace! 200,000 refugees!'” Kishmariya said. “But the Georgians aren’t saying a word about the fact that they’re starting to go home.”
The Megrelians are a distinct people with their own language and traditions. But the Georgians don’t consider them to be an independent nation.
“They’re only Megrelians until the age of 16,” he said. “But as soon as they get their passport they’re Georgians.”
The closer to the border, the more women in black. The Megrelians have a genuine cult venerating the dead. Mourning over a great uncle lasts decades. And one mourning merges with the next and eventually there is no reason to take off the black clothing.
Nabakevi village. The Russian peacekeeping station sits proudly below the banner, “Russia.” It was here that strange, scandalous events occurred on the day of the Georgian elections. Georgia accused the Abkhazians of committing an act of terror — blowing up a bus to scare the Georgian population in Abkhazia and prevent them from voting.
Abkhazian Major Bubnov examined me suspiciously.”Do you have permission for an interview?” he asked.
“Where from!” I said with a smile. “At least just tell me what happened. Where were the shootings?”
“On that day we heard sounds of fighting close by,” Bubnov said. “There were shots. And then a shell flew toward us. Luckily no one was injured.”
“I know. I was there!” said a Megrelian farmer riding by on his wagon. “I went to Georgia for the elections. I had already voted and as I headed back they started shooting. Bullets were flying all over. It’s not clear who took the shots. I jumped in a ditch and laid there. Then I walked home crossing the border by foot.”
“We’re tired of these provocations,” Abkhazian President Sergey Bagapsh told KP. “The situation on election day was a genuine spectacle. Shots were fired into an empty bus. The bus caught fire. And cameras and fire engines appeared.”
“Any act of terror without victims is suspicious,” Kishmariya said. “In whose interest would this be? Only Georgia’s. And Georgia once again is accusing Abkhazia of terrorism. Why would the Abkhazians shoot an empty bus?”
“Well who shot down the Georgian drones?” I changed the topic.
A sly look came over Kishmariya’s face. “The Abkhazian forces. Do you have reason to doubt that?” he said. (And I remembered how I had asked a Russian military expert: “Maybe we shot down the drones?” “Of course we did!” he said surprised. “Who else?”
“A Georgian journalist called me that day and asked: ‘Mr. Kishmariya! How did the Abkhazians shoot down the Georgian drone? With what'” he said. “‘With special equipment called a ‘Boomerang,’ I answered. ‘What’s that?’ she asked. ‘A unique nonexpendable weapon,’ I said. ‘You throw it and it comes back.’ You won’t believe me, but the Georgians published that!”
Dead fighting a war of the living
All Abkhazia is wandering from funerals to weddings. Or as they say in Abkhazia, “weddings-shmeddings” and “funerals-shmunerals.” Good and bad celebratory tables. Life is always either one of the two.
“The Abkhazian people have a special idea of death,” my friend Nadir said. “In Abkhazian, the word ‘died’ translates literally as ‘changed worlds.’ We are all riding one train. Only the dead have reached their final destination and we are still on route. The deceased are waiting for us and plead us. If we want their support THERE, then we must justify their expectations here.”
Abkhazians prepare for death in a humdrum, theatrical manner.
“What do you think, when will Aunt Anelya die? Tuesday or Wednesday?” one Abkhazian said to another as we sat there drinking coffee.
“Wednesday. You’ll see. But no earlier than Uncle Anzor,” the other said.
My cup was shaking in my hands.
“How can you talk about death like that?” I asked.
“Death is a part of life. What are you afraid of? People attend funerals with no less pleasure than weddings!” I heard in answer.
Man is flesh and God is flesh. All these Othellos, Desdemonas, Hamlets (even Hitlers, Studebakers… Abkhazians love exuberant unusual names.) want the dead to appear to be living.
“So I arrive at D.’s funeral and he’s laying there before the crowd. In one hand he has a lit cigarette and in the other an open book,” my acquaintance Zaur told me. “Every 15 minutes his relatives gave him a new cigarette. The ventilator was working to turn the pages for him. Gives you goosebumps. And what about the ones who made mausoleums in their yards? Their son died in an automobile accident as a young man. And so his parents embalmed him and brought the mummy breakfast, lunch and dinner for 40 years.”
I was covered in a thin cold sweat. “Be quiet! You’re not normal!”
“Ahh, you don’t get it! All our policies revolve around the dead!” Nadir explained. “We believe that if we don’t fulfil their last will, they will get us from the other world. You think 3,000 of our young men died just like that for nothing? Their last will was Abkhazia’s independence. There cannot be any negotiations. No state will hold ground if it goes against their will! In Abkhazia there are regions where the dead are buried at home. Go ahead and try to sell or take away these homes. The families living there would die for them.”
Old and new rules
“Each May Georgia kicks the resort season off with a new threat of war. But this year is special,” said State Deputy and Hero of Abkhazia Batal Kobakhiya. “After Kosovo’s recognition, the rules have changed. The tender for recognizing Abkhazia’s independence has been declared and powerful players are participating — Russia and the U.S. The West is rebuking us saying that we are Russia’s satellite state. But we don’t deny this. When we were forced into a corner, Russia opened its window to us. Should we have refused such aid only for Georgia’s sake? Today, after removing economic sanctions, Russia has already opened a window. Now it might open the door. But Russia is very scrupulous. It wants to honor international regulations so no one can say Russia is conducting itself in the Caucasus like a bull in a china shop.”
“After Kosovo, Georgian authorities attempted to use scare tactics by openly threatening Abkhazia with force,” said Foreign Minister Sergey Shamba. “Burdzhanidze’s statement can still been seen on the Web that Georgia will fight Russia if Abkhazia’s independence is recognized. They thought they’d scare us, but their comments had the reverse effect. Russia’s leaders slammed their fists on the table and they sent more troops to Abkhazia. Saakashvilli was singing a whole other tune when he spoke in Batumi May 8. He said that the Georgian Army isn’t capable of fighting, NATO wouldn’t help, Russia is our closest ally… That’s the audience. Russia only needs to slam its fist.”
“After the war, Georgia signed an agreement which it currently disputes. The Georgians were weak and afraid we’d take Tbilisi,” Shamba continued. “Why did Shevardnadze say: ‘Standing on my knees, I’m asking that we be taken into the CIS’? Because he needed strength to stop us. And then Moscow sent its Marines to Poti to stop our attack on Tbilisi. And now the Georgians have a revanchist air about them. They sent troops to the Korosk Gorge, built a patriotic camp along our borders, spent millions of dollars on arms. Listen, why do they need so many weapons? What’s happening with Georgia is a natural process. Human history is a constant shifting of borders. We witnessed the fall of the Russian Empire. And Georgia’s current form was artificially created by Stalin.”
After Kosovo’s independence was recognized, highbrow officials such as Deputy Aid to the U.S. Secretary of State Matthew Bryza and the U.S. ambassador to Georgia visited Sukhumi.
“They came to feel us out and see what we’re made of,” said Presidential Advisor Nadir Bitiev. “For them we’re the same old FSB agents, only darker and we speak Russian with a strange accent.”
“At a closed meeting 1.5 years ago, the Georgians told Bryza that peaceful means weren’t solving the Abkhazia question and only military force would work,” said Deputy Defense Minister Harry Kupalba. “Bryza said: ‘If the situation is solved quickly, within 2-3 days, the international community won’t have the time to come to their senses. But if the ordeal lasts several weeks, we won’t support you.’ And so Georgia was brushed off by the U.S. The Abkhazia issue cannot be solved in three days.”
“The U.S. declared its interest in the South Caucasus and is inching toward the North Caucasus,” he continued. “Russia also wants to have influence in the South Caucasus and prevent Georgia from joining NATO. Georgia has unanimously left its sphere of influence and Russia must reconcile with this fact. So Russia needs to use what it has — little Abkhazia. If Russia loses Abkhazia, then tomorrow NATO will be just outside Sochi. The West has hinted that if the mediators change, Russian forces leave Abkhazia and NATO peacekeepers arrive they’d examine our membership in various international organizations.”
“I met with the messengers Matthew Bryza and the U.S. ambassador,” said Bagapsh. “We are ready to proceed with negotiations with Georgia under one condition — that Georgian forces are withdrawn from the Kodorsk Gorge. Abkhazia’s status is not under consideration. We will never again be a part of Georgia. And the Kodorsk Gorge belongs to Abkhazia. Georgians are increasing their forces, but they shouldn’t be disillusioned into thinking we’re sitting here idly.
“When Saakashvilli said that the drones flied, fly and will fly above Abkhazia,” Bagapsh continued, “we answered: ‘We shot the drone down and we will continue to do so.’ I requested the contingent of the Russian Army to increase their troops. It was our initiative. Abkhazia is home to many Russian citizens. In terms of the Russian passports. In 1998, I met with Shevardnadze and spoke about this issue. Let’s solve the problem about UN documents for Abkhazians. He wasn’t interested. So I told him in four years 90 percent of Abkhazians would have Russian passports. Shevardnadze didn’t believe me. But we started this procedure and we’ve been successful. The West speculates that Russia wants to annex Abkhazia. But this is absurd. Under law Russia cannot attach another nation to itself. Putin and I spoke about this. It is in Russia’s interest to have an independent friendly state and free economic zone on its border. Abkhazia can become an original duty-free. Every large state rests near a smaller state. It is normal. If the U.S. has a remote zone of interest such as Georgia or the Kyrgyz Republic, why can’t Russia can’t observe its interests on its own border?! We are a buffer between possible NATO bases in Georgia and Russia.
“In Georgia,” Bagapsh said, “my photograph is hanging at shooting ranges instead of a target. This isn’t a joke, it’s an ideology. Believe you me, politicians talk elegantly about war until they start firing. Everything is NATO in Georgia right now — jeeps, food, uniforms. But when they start carrying coffins it won’t matter what uniforms the dead are wearing — NATO or not. All men die the same regardless of uniform.”