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Abkhazia ~ Paradise Lost…

 

Much of the tourism industry consists of Russian soldiers and low-income retirees

Today, much of the tourism industry in Abkhazia consists of Russian soldiers and low-income retirees

 

If there is a place on earth that inspires more melancholy, reminiscence and regret than Abkhazia, I have yet to find it. A republic of sighs, home to 250.000 people who still mourn their dead as much as they plan their future.

This year marks the 23rd anniversary of Abkhazia’s first declaration of independence from Georgia. That initial gesture of July 23, 1992, was boycotted by the ethnic Georgians in government and ignored by the outside world. But soon enough, it began a cycle of attacks and reprisals, fueled by alcohol, old grudges, and the chaos of the Soviet collapse.

In the chaos that followed, up to 15.000. civilians were killed, most of them Georgians. The O.S.C.E. (Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe) recognized the massacre of Georgian civilians – the Sukhumi massacre becoming the most notorious. Abkhazia denies such events and avoids talks on this matter. Also, the presence of over 3.000 Russian peace-maintaining troops in the region makes it a sensitive issue for the international community.

Over 250.000 Georgians, Abkhazians and other ethnicities living in Abkhazia became refugees, reducing the population to half (the 1992 Census counted a population of over 500.000 ).

Georgia has blockaded all southern routes by sea and land, and so Abkhazia has to rely on the kindness of its neighbor and patron Russia, with whom it shares a land border.

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The Russian involvement in the conflict has supposedly been neutral all along, however in recent years Russia  started to claim territory from the state of Abkhazia.

A territorial dispute has recently worsened the relationship between Moscow and its committed ally in the South Caucasus, Georgia’s separatist republic of Abkhazia. Read more here Russia and Abkhazia dispute border delimitation (2011)

“We had a poor understanding of what was going on that day, August 26, when Russia recognized us,” Khashig says. 

“It was an emotional wave. Only later did we figure out that we were not getting what we wanted. Earlier, even though nobody recognized us, we were truly independent. Now, after recognizing Abkhazia, Russia is swallowing us.”

Read more here Abkhazia And The Perils Of ‘Independence’

During the Sochi Olympics, Russia expanded its borders into Abkhazia. A so-called “temporary border”, it is unsure if this measure will be reverted. NATO raps Russia for expanding border into Georgia

 

 Photography by Yuri Kozyrev – 2011

Abkhaz troops in Sukhumi

Abkhaz troops in Sukhumi

Abkhaz soldiers train at the Military Academy in Sukhumi. Abkhazia's regular forces are believed to be small, with estimates of the standing army ranging from 1.000 to 5.000.

Abkhaz soldiers train at the Military Academy in Sukhumi. Abkhazia’s regular forces are believed to be small, with estimates of the standing army ranging from 1.000 to 5.000.

Moss has grown over the white marble statues and round ponds in the tropical botanical garden along the Gagra seashore

Moss has grown over the white marble statues and round ponds in the tropical botanical garden along the Gagra seashore

Russian tourists pose in front of an abandoned 19th-century palace

Russian tourists pose in front of an abandoned 19th-century palace

A poster of Abkhaz fighters killed during the war with Georgia in 1992 and 1993, with the caption 'For peace and freedom of Abkhazia!'

A poster of Abkhaz fighters killed during the war with Georgia in 1992 and 1993, with the caption ‘For peace and freedom of Abkhazia!’

Ramas Beraia, an ethnic Georgian, lost his leg after stepping on a land mine on the banks of the Inguri River when he was 17. The UNHCR sponsored his retraining, as a shoe repairman. A vast majority of the population has been expelled and most ethnic Georgians still remaining are not allowed to vote.

Ramas Beraia, an ethnic Georgian, lost his leg after stepping on a land mine on the banks of the Inguri River when he was 17. The UNHCR sponsored his retraining, as a shoe repairman. A vast majority of the population has been expelled and most ethnic Georgians still remaining are not allowed to vote.

An Abkhaz man mows the lawn near an abandoned house where a Georgian family used to live

An Abkhaz man mows the lawn near an abandoned house where a Georgian family used to live

Abkhazia man paradise lost abandoned cities Georgia Russia

Abkhaz boys play in a hot spring in Ochamchira

Abkhaz boys play in a hot spring in Ochamchira

Abkhaz boys play in a hot spring in Ochamchira

Abkhaz boys play in a hot spring in Ochamchira

Abkhaz children on a playground in Ochamchira which used to be populated predominantly by ethnic Georgians

Abkhaz children on a playground in Ochamchira, abandoned residential area which used to be populated predominantly by ethnic Georgians

Abkhazia children paradise lost  Georgia Russia

Abkhaz children on a playground in Ochamchira, abandoned residential area which used to be populated predominantly by ethnic Georgians

Abkhazia abandoned georgian blocks paradise lost  cities Georgia Russia

Ethnic Georgian children dance a Georgian dance at the Didtsifuri school, which is partially sponsored by the western Christian aid group WorldVision in the village of Dikhazaurga.

Ethnic Georgian children dance a Georgian dance at the Didtsifuri school, which is partially sponsored by the western Christian aid group WorldVision in the village of Dikhazaurga.

Russian tourists are regular visitors to the sanatoriums along the Gagra seashore. During the Soviet years, tourism was Abkhazia'€™s prime source of income. Abkhazia'€™s palm-lined beaches, framed against glacial mountain peaks, were a frequent backdrop for the Soviet film industry.

Russian tourists are regular visitors to the sanatoriums along the Gagra seashore. During the Soviet years, tourism was Abkhazia’€™s prime source of income. Abkhazia’€™s palm-lined beaches, framed against glacial mountain peaks, were a frequent backdrop for the Soviet film industry.

Ethnic Georgians on a wagon on the road to the town of Gali. In the past, their movements were heavily restricted. Now, some Georgians work as laborers in Sukhumi or Gagra, mainly in the construction industry.

Ethnic Georgians on a wagon on the road to the town of Gali. In the past, their movements were heavily restricted. Now, some Georgians work as laborers in Sukhumi or Gagra, mainly in the construction industry.

The former parliament building in Sukhumi, Abkhazia'€™s capital, still bears the scars of the war.

The former parliament building in Sukhumi, Abkhazia’€™s capital, still bears the scars of the war.

Text by Nathan Thornburgh

In an otherwise empty restaurant, the music was as loud as an air-raid siren and the owner looked at me stiffly when we asked if it could be turned down just a little bit. Then the owner said no, and it was suddenly clear that this is what war did. He had probably fought and lost loved ones and won and the Abkhaz were now free, and even though the war ended twenty years ago he still remembered every nauseous moment and the lesson for him was that the Abkhaz won the war and that meant that he could play his shitty ballads in his empty restaurant and crank it so loud that his only customers had to leave, and that was OK, because Abkhazia was free.

A rusting trawler, an empty restaurant, a half-deserted coast. Even the national pastime is sleepy: the Abkhaz are famous for their skill at dominoes.

And yet, under the sleepiness is violence. ‘Abkhaz democracy reminds me a lot of America,’ an Abkhaz journalist tells me over coffee. ‘It’s a democracy of heavily armed people.’

Domino competitions are a serious business on the promenade in central Sukhumi

Domino competitions are a serious business on the promenade in central Sukhumi

Domino competitions are a serious business on the promenade in central Sukhumi

Domino competitions are a serious business on the promenade in central Sukhumi

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Photography by Jonas Bendiksen

 

Although Abkhazia is isolated, half-abandoned and still suffering war wounds due to its unrecognized status, both locals and Russian tourists are drawn to the warm waters of the Black Sea.

Although Abkhazia is isolated, half-abandoned and still suffering war wounds due to its unrecognized status, both locals and Russian tourists are drawn to the warm waters of the Black Sea.

Boys playing on a pier.

Boys playing on a pier.

With its lush Black Sea location, Abkhazia is trying to attract Russian tourists, who steadily increase in numbers each year. Here, at a road stop, on the tour bus route, an entrepreneur charges ten rubles to photograph people next to his bear, while his employees wait for the next busload.

With its lush Black Sea location, Abkhazia is trying to attract Russian tourists, who steadily increase in numbers each year. Here, at a road stop, on the tour bus route, an entrepreneur charges ten rubles to photograph people next to his bear, while his employees wait for the next busload.

With its lush Black Sea location, Abkhazia is trying to attract Russian tourists. Here, at a road stop on the tour bus route, an entrepreneur, who charges tourists 10 rubles to photograph his bear, catches his breath between busloads.

With its lush Black Sea location, Abkhazia is trying to attract Russian tourists. Here, at a road stop on the tour bus route, an entrepreneur, who charges tourists 10 rubles to photograph his bear, catches his breath between busloads.

A Russian tourist, dressed in a "USSR" track suit, photographs his friend dressed up in more traditional garments at a pit-stop for tour buses.

A Russian tourist, dressed in a “USSR” track suit, photographs his friend dressed up in more traditional garments at a pit-stop for tour buses.

Checking in at the Soviet-era resort hotel "Pensionat Energetik," on the Black Sea cost. Back in Soviet Days, Abkhazia rivalled Sochi and the Crimean Peninsula for summer vacations

Checking in at the Soviet-era resort hotel “Pensionat Energetik,” on the Black Sea cost. Back in Soviet Days, Abkhazia rivalled Sochi and the Crimean Peninsula for summer vacations

A Russian tourist girl in a Soviet-era resort "Pensionat Energetik," on the coast of Gagra.

A Russian tourist girl in a Soviet-era resort “Pensionat Energetik,” on the coast of Gagra.

The damaged "People's Assembly Building" stands like a war memorial in central Sukhum.

The damaged “People’s Assembly Building” stands like a war memorial in central Sukhum.

Kids playing outside an abandoned apartment building.

Kids playing outside an abandoned apartment building.

 A man with Tuberculosis.  "Doctors Without Borders" supply the DOTS treatment in this hospital.

A man with Tuberculosis. “Doctors Without Borders” supply the DOTS treatment in this hospital.

Tanya, an elderly ethnic Russian woman, heads back to her bombed out apartment building after walking her dog. Despite the damages, three apartments remain occupied in the building.

Tanya, an elderly ethnic Russian woman, heads back to her bombed out apartment building after walking her dog. Despite the damages, three apartments remain occupied in the building.

Tanya's run down apartment.

Tanya’s run down apartment.

Damaged apartment building on the outskirts of Sukhum. Some of the apartments are still occupied.

Damaged apartment building on the outskirts of Sukhum. Some of the apartments are still occupied.

 

And finally, a reminder of Abkhazia’s beauties…

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