Abkhazia: Memory of War Still Looms Large
Abkhazians will commemorate Victory Day on September 30, marking the day in 1993 that the last remaining Georgian troops fled across the Enguri River, and Abkhazia began its life as a quasi-independent state.
In the capital, Sukhumi, preparations have been underway for several weeks – with soldiers practicing their parade march, workers polishing memorials and the state war museum refreshing its exhibitions. A quarter of a century since the internecine violence began, Abkhazia’s conflict with Georgia remains fresh in the memory of veterans and the post-war generation alike.
For Abkhazians, the war is remembered in divergent ways. It provides the celebrated inception story for the modern de facto Abkhazian state, while also representing an event that traumatized the population. The conflict’s unresolved status amplifies its legacy, as does the territory’s lack of widespread international recognition. In Abkhazia, the war is not over yet.
“It has been 25 years since the conflict began, so one might think that over two decades is a long time,” said Liana Kvarchelia, director of the non-government Center for Humanitarian Programs in Sukhumi, and a prominent public intellectual. “But to us it is only 25 years, it’s very vivid. We still have mothers that have not found the bones of their children, we still have ruined buildings.”
Larisa Tarba is a busy woman. Head of the Women’s Association of Veterans in Abkhazia, the 55-year-old is interrupted five times by phone calls and visitors during a short interview. With Victory Day approaching, Tarba is in demand – as are the 2,200 photos of Abkhazia’s war dead cluttering her office, ready for the annual commemoration.
A mathematics teacher before the war, Tarba enlisted as a nurse in the Pitsunda Battalion when fighting broke out. She remembers the worst of the conflict – in late 1992, Georgian troops controlled most of Abkhazia – but insists she did not contemplate defeat. “It was difficult, but I never thought that we would lose,” Tarba said. “This was our homeland, we could not go anywhere else.”
Over 200 women fought for Abkhazia, with 23 fatally wounded throughout the year-long war. Fighters enjoy an exalted status in modern Abkhazian society and a variety of government benefits, such as discounted utility bills.
While Tarba argues that her association “is only for peace – there is no politics here,” war remembrance has inevitably become politicized in Abkhazia. There are several competing veterans’ organizations, each with considerable societal influence, and political opponents are commonly undermined with accusations of being “soft on Georgia” or “forgetting our heroes.”
The New Generation
The war remains a prominent feature of daily life even for Abkhazians born after 1993. “Many of our children grew up among relatives permanently wearing black to commemorate lost love-ones,” Kvarchelia told EurasiaNet.org in an interview. “They played not in playgrounds but among ruins, and endured international sanctions that denied them the opportunities of their peers in other countries.” A film currently under production, A Letter to Grandpa, will show grandchildren of veterans discussing their memories of the war and perspectives on Abkhazia’s future. It is targeted for release ahead of Victory Day in 2018.
Astamur (not his real name) was not yet two years old when the war began. Now 26, the affable civil society activist expresses concern with how many of his contemporaries understand the conflict. “Today’s generation certainly sees the war differently,” he said over pizza at Hotel Leon, a popular restaurant near Sukhumi’s waterfront. “Often the younger generation is actually more radical, more anti-Georgian and promoting a very conservative idea of Abkhazian society. I think the lack of exposure to the outside world due to our international isolation is largely responsible.”
“The older generation had personal relations with Georgians pre-war,” he continued. “Their views can be positive or negative, but at least they are first-hand. For us it is inevitably second-hand, exaggerated and narrated. I see the same on the Georgian side.”
War Crimes Impunity
In Sukhumi, as in Tbilisi, controversy still lingers over how the warring parties should remember their own atrocities. Both sides committed “gross violations of international humanitarian law,” according to a near-contemporaneous Human Rights Watch report, which detailed reckless disregard for the civilian population, sexual violence and ethnically-targeted slaughtering. Abkhazians evoke the deliberate destruction of the state archive as an example of Georgia’s war crimes, while Georgians often talk of the ethnic cleansing – or even “genocide” – of ethnically Georgian Abkhazians.
“A colleague once said publicly that all sides who committed human rights abuses must be held responsible,” Kvarchelia recalled. “She was immediately criticized for supposedly undermining the interests of Abkhazia. During a war no side is pure in what they do.”
While some locals are willing to discuss wartime atrocities, such comments are invariably followed by a refrain about the war’s origins: Georgian troops entered Abkhazia following a declaration of independence by the autonomous parliament in Sukhumi. Kvarchelia continued: “The fact that there were human rights abuses on both sides does not mean that Georgia shouldn’t account for its aggression.”
To Astamur, this common diversion has permitted his compatriots to avoid confronting the dark side of modern Abkhazia’s foundations. “The war was brought upon us, it was not us who started the war,” he said, paraphrasing the usual framing of the issue. “Putting it in that discourse allows us to distance ourselves from the horrifying atrocities that took place. It will take decades to overcome and understand the war and what both sides did. It is not a discussion that is taking place here yet.”
Commemorating the War
The V. G. Ardzinba State Museum of War Glory in central Sukhumi, named after Abkhazia’s first de-facto president, opened in December 2014. Its head of history, Ludmilla Lazba – who lost a brother in the war – has created a space that looks both to the past and future.
The museum’s story does not start in 1992. Its exhibits begin downstairs with two rooms dedicated to Abkhazian history during the Greek, Roman, Genovese, Ottoman and Russian eras. “Our state was not built yesterday,” Lazba said. The upper level then explores aspects of the 1992/93 conflict. It concludes with a ‘Victory Room,’ lined with flags of the few countries that recognize Abkhazia today.
“This museum is important to continuing the memory of those who died in the war. It is intended to enrich our citizens, and teach them our history,” she said.
A mix of history and forward-looking perspective is what Abkhazia needs, according to Kvarchelia. “We must honor the memory of people that sacrificed their lives, but we should not become fixated on the past,” she said. “We need to remember the war, and this memory should go not only to how we commemorate and celebrate, but also how we move forward and build a stable state.”
Kieran Pender is a freelance journalist, contributing to a range of publications including The Guardian. He is also a Research Fellow with the Black Sea Institute.