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Sukhumi: Sliding into conflict

Sukhumi waterfront in 1989 and 1998. Photo: Peter Nasmyth
Sukhumi waterfront in 1989 and 1998. Photo: © Peter Nasmyth

What had happened in Abkhazia? Nasmyth visited Sukhumi – the lush, sub-tropical black-sea holiday resort of the Soviet elite and capital of Abkhazia – for the first time in 1989. Abkhazia had just declared its independence from Georgia.

Some months had passed since April 9th, and Georgian (and Abkhazian) blood had flowed again that following July as the two sides fought over the territory's sovereignty. But to say Georgian had fought Georgian would now be unacceptable for the Abkhazians. They regarded this violence as an indigenous population resisting a colonial power (Georgia), since Abkhazia had spent many centuries fluctuating in and out of the Georgian federation. … Yet statistics pointed to a serious problem here. The half million or so population of Abkhazia stood as 44 per cent Georgian and only 17 per cent Abkhazian.

[p. 173]

But in 1989 these "ethnic rumblings" hadn't yet evolved into a full-fledged war and Nasmyth left Sukhumi with memories of palms, beaches, fresh air and the sea.

Three years later, Tbilisi tried to take control of Abkhazia.

Young, undisciplined fighters, blazing with the myth of Caucasian-banditry, streaming across the bridge to "sort out" the Abkhazians – an attack that provoked a fierce Russian-backed counter-offensive a few month later that ethnically cleansed nigh on the entire Georgian population (44% of the total), some 250,000 people, leaving Abkhazia a ghost region.

[p. 246]

Neither side in the conflict had a regular army at that time. The fighting took place between different armed paramilitary formations and militias. Both sides committed numerous atrocities. When Nasmyth arrived in Abkhazia for the second time in 1997 he witnessed the terrible destruction generated by the conflict.

It felt we'd arrived in a completely different territory to the one I'd known eight years earlier. As if someone had swapped the real Abkhazia with a beaten-up, second-hand replacement.

The lavish European/Caucasian villas climbing the flanks of Sukhumi Mountain, lay battered and dying. Their cupolas, balconies, art-deco reliefs, were flaking, cracking, tracked with bullet-holes. Garden doors stood open, plants and shrubs sprawled unkempt over walls as the properties changed with the Georgian exodus… Unique creations of the 19th-early 20th century now sagging like sad, old animals abandoned by the herd.

[pp.250 – 253]

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