Return to Abkhazia: Day 2 – Marshrutkaland
Marshrutkas come in all shapes and sizes.
There are the shiny new Mercedes mini-buses like the one I took from Tbilisi to Zugdidi, and there are sputtering old commuter wagons with DIY seats, which, like the rest of the vehicle, are held together by duct tape, twine and prayer. There are sedans that also technically qualify – mostly 60’s model Volgas and Zhigulis – where every non-claustrophobic person in the neighborhood packs in and rides along a specific route, either splitting the fare or paying a set fee (the word “marshrutka” is short for “marshrutnoe taksi” – a fixed-route taxi in Russian).
As mentioned above, I got lucky with the first leg of my westward journey towards Abkhazia, spending the five-hour ride from Tbilisi to Zugdidi in a stunningly new and clean mini-bus, albeit in the worst seat for a tall person – the back left right corner. Still, at the station, several taxi drivers came up to me offering to drive me to Zugdidi for 200 lari ($120) as opposed to the 15 lari ($8) for the marshrutka ride, a price based purely on my Western appearance I am sure. Fat chance.
I sleepily arrived in Zugdidi’s central square around 1 p.m. and I had already called ahead to Dato Patsatsia, head of the Zugdidi-based Human Rights Centre, whom I hoped to meet with in the city. He met me shortly after I climbed out of the deluxe German marshrutka and led me to a massive Samogrelo-style house where a few human rights workers typed away in a small cold office full of maps and posters.
I wanted to meet him to get some additional perspective on the two major issues I was going to investigate in Abkhazia – the fledgling, but growing Abkhaz opposition, and the growth of (officially illicit) Turkish trade and investment with Abkhazia. From his vantage point in the last major Georgian town in the direction of the politically severed region, he had gleamed quite a lot of what was going on – largely from the few Georgians allowed to cross into the first town across the de facto border, Gali.
One of the first things he told me about was about the systematic severing and destruction of all crossing points across the Inguri River that formed the de facto border, and the digging up of all the roads leading to those bridges. The interesting thing was that this was not only occurring on the Abkhaz side, but on the Georgian side as well. Despite all of the Georgian government’s rhetoric about getting back the breakaway territories in the next five to 10 years, it appears that they are settling in for the long haul.
“There’s something no one’s talking about in Tbilisi,” he said.
Looking at the big old Soviet military map of the de facto border area that he used to plot his organization’s activities, we talked a bit about the situation in Gali.
“Yeah, there are a lot of human rights problems for the Georgians living in this area,” Dato said, sweeping his hand across southern Abkhazia, which is still primarily inhabited by Mengrelian Georgians. “But there’s pretty much just as many abuses on this side too,” he said. Referring to the Georgian-controlled region around Zugdidi.
He said he viewed the whole secession/reconciliation situation as going nowhere because of the useless escalation of rhetoric and forces between Tbilisi and Moscow that was really being driven by American neo-conservative politicians. Republican Senator John McCain and his ilk, he said, hope to make Georgia into an American military outpost on Russia’s southern flank, within striking distance of Iran. Most Georgians readily remember when, as the war with Russia raged in the midst of the 2008 presidential campaign, then-Republican-presidential-candidate McCain said, “We’re all Georgians today.”
It played well in Tbilisi, not so well in America. But, in that contentious atmosphere, he said, the Abkhaz were always going to look to the Russians for more protection from the U.S.-supplied Georgians, and the Georgians would keep trying to get more hardware to protect them from Russia. Either way, it was a win for arms manufacturers and hawkish American and Russian politicians, but a loss for unity and peace in Georgia.
I probably could have talked to Dato for hours about world and local politics, but I was still several marshrutka rides away from Sokhumi, the de facto capital of Abkhazia – a destination I hoped to reach by the end of the day. So I put back on my bright orange backpack (a conspicuous sign of being a traveling foreigner) and headed to the corner by the market where the marshrutkas to the border assembled.
Again, I was approached by gaggle of taxi drivers offering varying fares to the border, but I was also apparently the last person needed to fill the worn-down marshrutka to full capacity and so the marshrutka driver lobbied me even harder. I climbed through the sliding door of the hulking van, which was in the process of being mobbed by women selling various baked goods to the already seated passengers. Since I ended up being the closest passenger to the door, I was the intermediary for several transactions, passing change and pastries back and forth. One man asked his teenage daughter if she was hungry. She said no, but, hearing this, the pastry ladies put all of their attention on the two of them, trying to shove khachapuri (Georgian cheese pastry deliciousness) into their faces. Laughing, he desperately called out to the driver, “Let’s go, let’s go, for the love of God!”
We got to the de facto border 20 minutes later, and I already knew the drill. All of the passengers got out and immediately started walking past the small Georgian police hut, some stopping to load onto a donkey cart that would take them the mile or so to the other side of the no-man’s-land for a small fee. As I was obviously not a part of the usual procession of Georgians shuttling between Zugdidi and their homes in Gali, I was expected to go over and announce my intentions to the police.
Tensions were much lower now than the first time I crossed into Abkhazia in July 2009 – just 11 months after Russian tanks special forces had plowed through this checkpoint amidst Georgia’s brief war with South Ossetian separatists and the Russian army. The process had also become much more official. The Abkhazian Foreign Ministry now sends a pdf document to travelers officially inviting them to enter, and the Georgian police are now accustomed to the occasional adventurous backpacker or foreign journalist who passes through into rebel territory. Bored-looking officers in the booth with AK-47’s propped against the wall took down my passport number and called back to Tbilisi to make sure I was not some sort of registered Russian spy. I am not, so they waved me through.
From there the walk gets surreal. A few hundred feet down the road, I passed the Georgian special forces that man series of camouflaged pill boxes in the remnants of what was once a small town. A crude 1990’s metal sculpture of a revolver with its barrel twisted into a knot points forward at the edge of the Soviet bridge towards the Abkhazian/Russian encampment on the opposite bank.
The once wide Inguri river was mostly dry and eerily silent. The bridge over it, on the other hand, consisted mostly of one large deep puddle after another. At its end, a Russian military base flew the Russian flag next to a tall stone tower. Two men, presumably Georgians, were fishing in the small part of the Inguri riverbed where water trickled through – about 30 feet from the Russian observation post. Life seemed to continue in an absurdly normal way around the imposing symbols of conflict.
The customs post on the Abkhaz side consisting of a few Soviet military trailers with makeshift canopies ground through the crowd of Georgians fairly smoothly. This too, was a change, and it seemed directly related the fact that Russian border guards had taken over the official responsibilities. My first time going in and out of Abkhazia I was briefly detained by the Abkhaz militia and questioned as a spy. The second time I approached the post on my way in about a year later, a drunk-looking Abkhaz militiaman sauntered up to me and read my official invitation aloud.
“Klieyton, Nikohlas Alan, citizen of the Severnoy Shkoli Alkogolikov (meaning “Northern School of Alcoholics,” a Russian play on words mocking the acronym USA, which in Russian is S-SH-A)” – at that moment a Russian officer came over and snatched the document from him.
The Russian took me aside, asked me if I spoke Russian, and proceeded to explain the visa procedures once I arrived in Sokhumi. I explained that I had been there before, and I knew what to do. He still ran me through it one more time to be sure, and wished me a pleasant visit.
This time it appeared that the sloppy militiamen had been relegated to other duties altogether, and were nowhere to be seen. I quickly spoke with a Russian soldier who looked over my invitation and that was that.
Next stop: Gali
In the past, I have always had to take expensive taxis from the border to Gali – expensive because gas is not cheap in Abkhazia and because the heavily cratered road between the border and the town is enough to shred the suspension of any vehicle short of a tank. Therefore, only an elite few cab drivers in the area will make the trip and they know their services are in demand. This time I was again lucky that I got through the border at the same time as the large group of other Georgians, which meant piling in and splitting the fare. The father and daughter from the marshrutka stacked up in the passenger seat and I got in the back with four large women who asked me a series of gossipy questions about whose guest I would be once I got to Gali. When I said I was just passing through on my way to Sokhumi, one asked, “Oh, you are serving up there?”
It seemed a strange verb to use in my case, one with the connotation of a military or espionage mission.
“No, just going for work.”
The Soviet sardine-can taxi dropped me off at a muddy square where a few unlabeled marshrutkas and taxis idled, their drivers standing around smoking, drinking and joking around.
“A marshrutka goes up to Sokhumi from here at 4:30 every day,” the taxi driver said. “Grab a cup of coffee, kill some time, and you’ll be fine.”
And so I got out into miserable Gali. Although my drive into Gali this time wound us through the mostly inhabited parts of the city where the passengers needed to get out, my past drives through the town had given me the impression that it was the most depressing place on Earth. Little more than half of Gali’s pre-war population of 80,000 have returned to the devastated city. I vividly remembered passing though the barely existent streets in 2009 past rows of ruined buildings dotted with the occasional tiny kiosk selling cigarettes, vodka, chewing gum, and potato chips. Residents wandered through the destroyed blocks like zombies in the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse. This was the first time I had dismounted and wandered around with any considerable time on my hands.
I had been told by journalists with experience in Gali to avoid taking pictures or straying too far from the main activity centers. Paramilitary thugs still prowled through Gali occasionally beating, robbing and harassing the predominately Georgian residents and foreigners, so it was best to stick to the marshrutka park and NGO row – a line of houses used as HQ’s for various humanitarian organizations. I took advantage of the time to get an Abkhaz SIM card that would allow me to call my contacts in Sokhumi, and hopefully set up some interviews for the next day since the train debacle had left me a bit behind schedule.
Behind a desk in a small shop with an “A Mobile” sign out front, a 20-something guy said I could buy a SIM card for 200 Russian rubles ($7) with some credit on it, but, in true Soviet fashion, he would need a number of documents from me. I had them all ready so a time-consuming process of punching numbers, names and dates into the system began. At some point an intimidating-looking guy wearing camouflage pants and a Led Zeppelin T-shirt came in and asked to see my dokumenty. I handed him my passport and propusk, or invitation letter. He clearly couldn’t read Latin letters, and so after thumbing through my passport for the better part of a minute he asked where I was from.
“American? How did you get here?”
“The border with Georgia. I got an invitation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Abkhazia, and I’m on my way to Sokhumi.”
“Why? What interest do you have here?”
“I’m a journalist, and I have interviews with a number of officials in the Abkhaz government.”
This succinct explanation did not seem to assuage his bewilderment, but he handed everything back to me and said, “Fine, good luck.”
Fifteen minutes later everything was ready for me to sign a few forms and get a card that would allow me to make calls on my Georgian cell phone to people in Abkhazia. First, I called a friend of mine in a humanitarian organization that I intended to meet up with in Sokhumi, telling him I was alive and should be in Sokhumi by the evening. I then called the number for some PR guy from the Economic Development Party of Abkhazia, who said I could come in at noon the next day and interview Beslan Butba, head of the party and one of Abkhazia’s main opposition leaders.
Then I waited. Eventually, I decided to explore the area around the square in a one-block radius, coming across several destroyed buildings now with massive trees growing in the middle of them – trees that would have been among the tallest in my hometown, Topeka. Coming back to the square, several taxi drivers approached me trying to convince me that there was no 4:30 marshrutka — the oldest trick in the book. As they gradually figured out I wasn’t buying it, their offered price for a drive to Sokhumi dropped from $100 to $50. I reminded them that the marshrutka cost $5, and eventually a large rickety van rolled up with a cardboard sign with “Sukhum” – the Russian name for Sokhumi – written on it.
According to my watch, it was scheduled to leave in 15 minutes, but I was so far the only prospective customer. Once inside, the driver put on some loud Russian pop music, and asked if I wouldn’t mind watching the marsrutka for a while. “Just stay and listen,” he said. He then got into a different car and drove off. Interesting. It was then that I realized that this marshrutka would not be leaving in 15 minutes, but an hour and 15 minutes. Georgia is directly south from Moscow and thus it is on the Moscow time zone. However, the Georgian government decided a while back that it would no longer recognize daylights savings time, but the de facto governments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia didn’t follow suit. Therefore, Georgia is one hour ahead of its two separatist provinces for half of the year. I adjusted my watch and got comfortable, realizing that I had just agreed to subject myself to a full hour of some of the worst music in the land, sitting in the back of an abandoned marshrutka that had now become my responsibility.
Fortunately, I would not be alone. About five minutes later I heard someone tugging at the sliding door, which apparently could only be opened from the inside. Hesitating briefly, I opened it to a guy in his early twenties with wearing a wool cap and a smile.
“Is this going to Sukhum?” he asked.
“I hope so, eventually,” I responded.
I could see the wheels turning in his head as he surveyed the situation: no driver, no passengers save for one guy with a big orange backpack speaking Russian with a foreign accent. He shrugged, got in and introduced himself as Temuri.
As I came to find out, Temuri’s life and current situation seemed to perfectly capture the struggles of post-Soviet Georgia. He was born in 1990, one year before Georgia declared independence from the Soviet Union. By the end of 1991, ethnic conflict between Georgians and Ossetians had already broken out and Georgia’s first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, had been chased from power in a bloody coup that continued in the form of a low-level civil war across the country. The mix of the intra-Georgian power struggle, and the interethnic strife ignited by the deposed nationalist leader eventually metastasized into all out wars between disparate forces supporting the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and those trying to maintain Georgian control over the provinces.
By 1993, the secessionists had won and between 230,000 and 250,000 Georgians civilians were expelled from their homes in the two territories. About 50,000, including Temuri’s family were eventually allowed to return to the Gali region, still under Abkhazian control. Most of the Gali Georgians continue to eke out a living shuttling between back and forth to Georgian-held territory selling hazelnuts and tangerines from their properties on the Abkhaz side.
Temuri, by contrast, had been relatively luckily. He was currently studying at a university in Tbilisi, but as often as he could, he came back to help his family in Gali and do some odd jobs in Sukhum – which was quite adventurous as most of the Gali Georgians I talked to in the past would not dare venture into predominately Abkhaz areas since the war. Although they have officially been offered Abkhaz citizenship, accepting it would mean renouncing their Georgian citizenship, making it impossible to return to Georgia (or enter any other country other than Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua or Nauru). Futhermore, even Gali schools focus on teaching Russian and Abkhaz languages, while Georgian schools focus on Georgian and English, and it is now a requirement to speak English at a high-level to graduate Georgian universities. Temuri’s Russian was impeccable but he still struggled with English. Thus, Temuri’s family and the other Georgians lived suspended in a quasi-stateless zone, divided by language, ethnicity, troops and political boundaries from any clear alternative.
Eventually, he asked me if I wanted anything from the shop. I said I was fine, but I knew from experience in the region that no matter what I said, he would end up buying me something. Sure enough, after making a quick trip, he came back with two cans of Lipton iced tea, Choco Pies and a couple of Kit-Kat bars – all processed and packaged in Russia. Globalization.
Slowly but surely, the marshrutka filled up, the driver returned and we were on our way. About 30 minutes north, the bumpy highway began running along the Black Sea, and amidst the palms trees lining the road and the sunset behind the tranquil waters, it was possible to forget you were driving through a blank spot on a map, one that that had been politically and psychologically ripped to pieces.
At some point when we got inside the Sukhum city limits, a car driving along side the marshrutka lurched and skid into the sidewalk spraying sparks across the street. Apparently one of its wheels had suddenly popped off, sending it to a screeching halt. The young marshrutka driver stopped for a bit – not to help, but to chuckle. After a few seconds he got back in and said, “that was awesome.”
I got out somewhere approximately near where my friend’s office was, and was able to find my way there with surprising ease. I plopped down my bag and as he poured a couple of welcoming shots of vodka and asked me, “So, how was your trip?”
“It was … quite a trip.”
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