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Sukhumi: The history of the region became ashes

Hotel Abkhazia in Sukhumi - flickr-cabiria8
Hotel Abkhazia in Sukhumi. Photo: flickr/cabiria8

Neal Ascherson is a well known British foreign correspondent. He is also the author of a book of history and reportage about the Black Sea. It was written as the Soviet Union crumbled and in the period just afterwards. It was first published in 1995. In 2007 a new and updated version came out. This is not surprising. For an English language readership Ascherson's book had established itself as the single best and most readable introduction to the region and it has lost none of its freshness and poignancy. Given the conflict in Georgia in 2008 the idea of bringing out a new edition was timely indeed. One chapter, from which these extracts are taken, is devoted to Abkhazia, the breakaway part of Georgia which is now recognised as independent by Russia. In a painstakingly fair-minded way Ascherson explains how the ancestors of the Abkhaz were already there when the first Greeks arrived in the sixth century BC, and how by 1992 they had become less than 20 per cent of the population, the rest being Georgians, Mingrelians (a Georgian minority,) Russians, Pontic Greeks, Armenians and others. The conflict of 1992 and 1993 which originally severed Abkhazia from Georgia was brutal. "There were atrocities on both sides," writes Ascherson:

The towns were wrecked and often looted. In the south, the Georgians destroyed villages as they fell back, and sowed the fields with mines. The dead – killed in battle, murdered in their homes or victims of hunger and cold as they sought to escape across the mountains – have never been reliably counted but certainly numbered in their thousands.

The Abkhazians had become "masters in their own house". But the house was roofless, and they wandered lonely through its desolate rooms.

Ascherson describes how he visited Sukhum (Sukhumi) nine months after the end of the 1993 conflict and writes how, apart from the physical loss of human lives and infrastructure, the people of the whole region had lost something more. "Abkhazia also lost its history," he writes:

More accurately, it lost the material evidence of its own past, the relics and documents which any newly independent nation needs to re-invent and reappraise its own identity. This was not an accidental consequence of the fighting for Sukhum. It was, in part, a deliberate act of destruction.  

The National Museum was not burned, but it was looted and devastated. In its dim halls, stuffed bears and spoonbills lean over torn cartons of Greek pottery shards. The huge marble relief of a woman and children, found on the sea-bed off the site of [the ancient Greek settlement of] Dioscurias, was spared because the staff (several of whom were Georgians) hid it behind boards. But the Georgian soldiers took the coin collections and even replicas of gold and silver vessels whose originals were already in the museum at Tbilisi. The cases containing Abkhazian finery, inlaid muskets and jewelled daggers and decorated wedding-dresses, were broken and emptied. Soldiers do this everywhere in occupied cities… But the fate of the State Archives was different.

The shell of the building stands down by the sea. Its roof has fallen in, and the interior is a heap of calcined rubble. One day in the winter of 1992, a white Lada without number-plates, containing four men from the Georgian National Guard, drew up outside. The guardsmen shot the doors open and then flung incendiary grenades into the hall and stairwell. A vagrant boy, one of many children who by then were living rough on the streets, was rounded up and made to help spread the flames, while a group of Sukhum citizens tried vainly to break through the cordon and enter the building to rescue burning books and papers. In those archives was most of the scanty, precious written evidence of Abkhazia's past, as well as the recent records of government and administration. The Ministry of Education, for example, lost all its files on school pupils. The archives also contained the entire documentation of the Greek community, including a library, a collection of historical research material from all the Greek villages of Abkhazia and complete files of the Greek-language newspapers going back to the first years after the Revolution. As a report compiled later in Athens remarked: "the history of the region became ashes."

Black Sea: Birthplace of Civilisation and Barbarism. Neal Ascherson. 2007.
[p. 247 & pp.  253-254 / Vintage Books]

January 2009
Tim Judah

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