Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Regular hidden europe correspondent Karlos Zurutuza ventures to parts of Europe that most of us would judge to be off-limits. Here he reports from Abkhazia, a not-quite-independent republic on the Black Sea.

article summary —

It was only in the mid nineteen twenties that the Russian journalist and adventurer Konstantin Georgiyevich Paustovsky first came to Abkhazia. Roads and bridges had been blown up in the Russian civil war and there was no question of Paustovsky being able to take the land route over either the Psou or the Inguri rivers into Abkhazia. So Paustovsky came by ship. This turned out to create problems of another kind, as the Abkhaz authorities were reluctant to allow passengers to disembark for fear that they might be carrying the dreaded typhus that was then raging in some Black Sea provinces.

Eighty years on, and the bridges and roads do not seem a whole lot better than they were in Paustovsky's day. Getting to Abkhazia is as difficult as ever. True, Abkhazia's infrastructure was rebuilt by the Soviet Union, but Abkhazia's brief but brutal conflict with Georgia in the nineteen nineties brought a new wave of destruction. Today, Georgia still enforces a maritime embargo on Abkhazia, so the only way in is by road.

The bridge over the Inguri used to be the gateway to Abkhazia for thousands of Georgian tourists who would head west in the summer to the former Georgian Riviera, the string of resorts that line the narrow coastal strip between Abkhazia's mountainous interior and the Black Sea.

Today the Inguri bridge links a de facto Republic of Abkhazia backed by Russia and, over on the other bank, a pro-western Georgia. The forests are as lush as ever, but the Mingrelian homeland is bisected by a modern improvised border. This matter of the Mingrelians is a sore point. An uncommonly intelligent if decidedly subversive mule narrates The Tale of Old Khabug's Mule, one of the stories in Sandro of Chegem. Of the Mingrelians, the mule recounts:

"[they] had been spontaneously generated from wood mould... somewhere deep in the dense forest between Georgia and Abkhazia. Very likely that was possible in czarist times. And later they grew into a whole tribe, multiplying much faster than the Abkhazians would have liked."

Today, the 'mould people' gather at the Georgian checkpoint, waiting to cross the Inguri into Abkhazia. People are a little nervous as they wait silently under the huge billboard of an unsmiling Georgian president. On the poster Mikheil Saakashvili - 'Misha' to those who admire him - is flanked by Georgian flags and looks towards the lost territory of Abkhazia. Most of the Mingrelians waiting here are widows dressed in black.

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Karlos Zurutuza has been covering human rights and conflict along parallel 33 (from Western Sahara to Eastern Baluchistan) for the past 15 years. Other than in hidden europe, his work has been published in prominent media outlets such as Al Jazeera, IPS News Vicenews, The Middle East Eye and The Guardian, among many others. He has also published several books, his latest being Tierra Adentro (Libros del KO, 2018), which covers seven years of ground reporting in Libya.

This article was published in hidden europe 11.