A small bomb in Gali

Nikolaj Nielsen
8 July 2008

The Svetliachok cafe has seen better times. The blue-and-red canvas cover has been torn from its awning, scattering in its wake sweet-wrappers and napkins. They lie in puddles around the cafe entrance amid the continuing drizzle. It is a miserable scene. But people in the town of Gali, near the Georgian border in eastern Abkhazia, have more than rain and repair to worry about. For the debris represents the work not of the weather but of a bomb. Nikolaj Nielsen has just completed a masters degree in journalism and media. He is a former editorial intern at terrorism.
. His work has been published in New Internationalist and Pambazuka News.

The journey south here from Abkhazia's capital Sukhum (Sukhumi), an hour by pot-holed road, is a minor lesson in the intractability of the conflict that has kept Abkhazia in limbo since the small Black Sea region wrested itself from Georgia's control in the war of 1992-93. The traffic we passed en route to the Georgian border was sparse: the occasional United Nations vehicle, a dilapidated red bus, three Russian MC trucks, and several dozen cows - all heading the other way towards. Everywhere, shelled-out homes from the war were a constant reminder that - the faded evidence of Sukhum's former resort status (and even a few Russian tourists) notwithstanding - Abkhazia is a conflict-zone.

For the fifteen years since they established a fragile autonomy after decades as part of Georgia and the Soviet Union, the Abkhazians have been struggling for recognition as an independent state. "It's about our identity, security, dignity, healing wounds, and being able to interact on a equal basis", says Liana Kvarchelia, deputy director for the Centre for Humanitarian Programmes in Sukhum says. Abkhazians' deep desire to be seen as a distinct people with the right to determine their own future is, however, viewed with outright opposition by Georgia, suspicion by the international community, and scepticism even by Abkhazia's main protector and ally, Russia. Also on openDemocracy:

Andrew Mueller, "Abkhazian futures" (23 August 2005),

Thomas de Waal, "Abkhazia's dream of freedom" (10 May 2006),

George Hewitt, "Abkhazia: land in limbo" (10 October 2006),

Donald Rayfield, "Russia and Georgia: a war of perceptions" (24 August 2007),

Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia: politics after revolution" (14 November 2007),

Robert Parsons, "Mikheil Saakashvili's bitter victory" (11 January 2008),

Robert Parsons, "Georgia, Abkhazia, Russia: the war option" (13 May 2008),

Thomas de Waal, "The Russia-Georgia tinderbox" (16 May 2008).

Amid political isolation and constant insecurity, the Abkhazians have managed to establish an elected government and a nascent civil society. But they have been forced increasingly to rely on Russia, in a relationship they concede is often ambivalent. Their primary concern, as long as a return to war with Georgia remains the main threat, is security. When that is guaranteed, the rest will follow, or so they hope.

Before leaving Sukhum, I call Abkhazia's deputy foreign minister to get an assessment of the situation in Gali to find that the area has been declared an emergency-zone after the bomb explosion late on the previous evening killed four people and injured six. Natella Akaba, chair of the Association of Women of Abkhazia, advises me not to travel. But no one it seems has told the guards at a succession of Russian military checkpoints, and we arrive in the centre of Gali where - against the background of a Soviet-era mural depicting white doves and a cosmonaut - two investigators are picking through debris in the blast-site.

A single checkered white-and-red ribbon, tied to the pine trees that surround the tiny Svetliachok cafe, cordons off the area where on 6 July 2008 four people died: Jansukh Muratia, the acting head of Abkhaz security in the Gali district; Sukhran Gumba, an Abkhaz border officer; Anzor Lagvilala, a United Nations translator; and Iveta Toria, a local resident. It was another episode in a deteriorating situation that had already seen four bombs explode in Gagra and Sukhum on 29-30 June, injuring twelve people. For the Abkhazians, the situation is clear. "This is a specific action made by Georgian special agents. Their goal is to show that Abkhazian and Russian peacekeepers cannot control the situation", said Rusland Kishmaria, special representative of the Abkhaz president in Gali region.

Most local residents refuse to talk to a curious stranger. But further away from the scene, one - a Georgian who fled Gali in the war, only to return in 1997 - tells me: "You can see what life is like here. So long as the Russians are here, our lives will not change. The Russians are satisfied with an unstable situation. There is a lot of tension. If something happens we can't rely on either the Russians or the Abkhazians. We can only rely on ourselves."

A few hours later, back in Sukhum, Abkhazia's defence minister Mirab Kishmaira looks nervous as he refuses point-blank to comment on the bombings. The words are defiant: "We are prepared to face the Georgian soldiers anywhere, anytime. As soon as we get the word, we'll start military operations." Kishmaira has seen war in Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as his own country, and has no desire to see blood. But when asked if military operations could ever resolve the current conflict, he says: "I wish that Abkhazia will be recognised in a beautiful way and that we can become a model for other countries."

For the Abkhazians, it was and remains a zero-sum conflict: independence or nothing. Whoever planted the bombs in Gali is accentuating the choice.

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