The last time 76-year-old Venera Oshoridze saw her son, Kakha, was September 15, 1993.
A pensive 20-year-old who loved his friends, his mother’s fried potatoes, and dreamed of going to college, Kakha volunteered to fight in the Abkhaz war just days before Tbilisi lost the battle for Sokhumi on September 27, 1993.
“He wasn’t like the others. He was a quiet boy, always thinking about something,” Oshoridze said, pointing to photo of a serious young man with solemn brown eyes.
Both of Oshoridze’s sons went to war, but while her elder son returned, Kakha vanished without a trace. Like nearly 2,000 other men and women (most of them Georgian) from the 1992-1993 war between Tbilisi and separatist forces in Abkhazia, he has been missing for the past two decades.
Immediately after the conflict, Oshoridze started looking for her son, as scores of Abkhaz and Georgian parents joined forces to locate, identify and, when possible, rebury their children.
The grassroots effort, eventually led by the Georgian non-governmental organization Molodini (Expectations) and the Abkhaz NGO Mothers of Abkhazia for Peace & Social Justice, used personal connections and references from government officials to find answers.
Georgian parents like Oshoridze traveled to Abkhazia to search, learning firsthand of their children’s deaths through scraps of clothing and body remains. Working together with the Abkhaz, they unearthed and identified bodies based on fragments -- a bandaged arm, dollars folded in a pocket, the remains of a synthetic jacket.
Eventually, the bilateral search helped return 314 bodies to Abkhaz and Georgian families, according to historian Vladimir Dobordjginidze, who, together with the current Georgian state minister for reintegration, Paata Zakareishvili, was involved in the initial project.
Finding the missing and returning the dead, noted Dobordjginidze, whose son, Zura, disappeared during the fight for Sokhumi, is a non-political issue that provided a connection between Abkhaz and Georgians. “We had great contacts [with the Abkhaz],” he said. “My son died, but that does not mean I am mad at them. We met as ordinary people.”
The Abkhaz also emphasize the “humanitarian” nature of the initiative. “In the Caucasus, it’s important to go to your loved one’s grave. [It’s] like a birthday,” said Asida Lomaia, a project associate for the Mothers of Abkhazia for Peace & Social Justice. Her cousin, Arzamet Tarba, is among those missing.
“It doesn't matter what nationality -- you keep hope that they may be alive.”
The 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, which resulted in Moscow formally acknowledging breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, has complicated the search for the missing.
The last exchange, in 2006, involved the return of 62 bodies from a mass grave of 95 Georgians at Sokhumi’s Babushera Airport. (And the return of the living as well -- two young women, said Dobordjginidze).
Another two bodies from Sokhumi were sent to Georgian families “via independent channels” this spring, according to Leonid Lakerbaia, Abkhazia’s de-facto prime minister.
The 2008 war heightened the sensitivity of these joint searches for both sides, but also provided a new urgency for finding the missing. Inspired by the success of an ICRC-organized mission in breakaway South Ossetia, the Abkhaz and Georgians agreed to a Red-Cross proposal for a similar format for identifying the missing from the 1992-1993 war.
Kakhaber Kemoklidze, head of the analytical department at the Ministry of Interior Affairs in Tbilisi, said the ministry, which keeps records on missing individuals from the Abkhaz war, is willing to help efforts to locate and identify the missing. But, Kemoklidze added, it is as much an issue of trust as it is of political will.
Cooperation with de-facto Abkhaz authorities has not always been easy, Kemoklidze noted, adding that the ICRC’s role as mediators is “really important and invaluable.”
Lakerbaia agreed that the present operation would not be possible without the Red Cross’ help. “I don’t see any straight cooperation with Georgia possible,” he said, “but we have a common goal -- to find unknown remains, identify them and return them to their relatives. That’s the main task for all of us.”
Under the ICRC’s oversight, two official representatives from each side meet once a year in neutral locations, such as Istanbul, Kyiv and Yerevan, to compare and exchange lists of names and information on gravesites. The information includes how bodies were buried, their condition, and the names of any witnesses of the death or burial.
Agreement now has been reached to continue the search at Sokhumi’s Glory Park, where the bodies and remains of 63 unknown individuals are buried. The ICRC recently sent DNA samples from this first batch of remains, exhumed by Argentine forensic scientists, to Zagreb, Croatia for comparison with DNA from families of the missing. Russia, which has troops stationed in Abkhazia, is not involved in the process.
Meanwhile, the families wait. “The exhumation process for many mothers is a starting process of non-acceptance to acceptance. The families need some sense of closure,” said Khatuna Logua, a psychologist at the ICRC office in Sokhumi.
Psychological counselling for these families, whether in Sokhumi or Georgian-controlled territory, has not been an official priority. “Some people don’t want to believe their relatives are dead,” said Logua. “You hear people talk of fantasies of secret prisons [containing the missing] on both sides.”
So far, noted Oshonidze and other Georgian parents, time has worked against identification efforts. Surviving family members of the missing have died or moved, taking with them vital information that could help identify bodies.
For Georgian pensioner Tristin Andriadze, whose son, Konstantin, went missing in October 1993, the only hope is that families on both sides will be given another chance to find their loved ones. “After so many years, it is likely they are dead, but, in my heart, I still have hope that something will be found; at least, where they were buried,” he said.
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist who also works as editor of Investor.ge, a monthly publication by the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia. Paul Rimple is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. Justyna Mielnikiewicz is a freelance photojournalist also based in Tbilisi.