In a quiet lane near New Athos, I stop to admire an old, carved wooden veranda: ‘Used to be a school’ says a voice through the overgrown front garden. An old man in a flat cap peers warily through the branches. He opens the rusted gate and walks away, closing what could have been a promising conversation.
Nature is reclaiming thousands of ruined buildings across Abkhazia, from the concrete skeletons of nondescript townhouses to the solemn grandeur of Tsarist-era sanatoriums and hotels. Many of them were damaged in the 1992-93 Georgia/Abkhazia conflict, and others fell into disrepair during the ensuing blockade, broken only in 2008 when Abkhazia was recognised by Russia.
The Georgian government has since funded the My House programme, which attempts to register property owned by Georgians who fled Abkhazia. Many such properties, however, have changed hands so many times that legal ownership remains unclear: Abkhazian residents believe that they have a moral entitlement to them, having suffered so much; and state ownership of buildings during the Soviet era contributes to the legal headache. Even while Abkhazia’s population has more than halved from 525,000 to 240,700, the result is a housing crisis for young Abkhazians.
Just over twenty years since Georgian tanks crossed the River Ingur, there has been time for many to reflect on the fate of these ruined buildings. At the Abkhazian State University, for example, an English class I visit, asserts the continued importance of the buildings in the Abkhaz historical memory. These buildings, they maintain, bring back the names of family relatives killed during the war, of those who fled, or those whose fate is unknown. The war-damaged buildings are themselves the monuments to the dead.
Sitrak Surmenelyan, Professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University, attributes the disrepair of these buildings to a lack of political will: ‘The problem is that we don’t have a functioning civil society. Look at Fukushima, where the entire Japanese nation helped. Of course, goodwill only goes so far. To repair these buildings would cost a lot of money; and corruption in Abkhazia means that the government is unlikely to repair these buildings, while private citizens cannot raise the money.’
Surmenelyan adds that, attracted by generous incentives to return to their homeland, some members of the Abkhaz diaspora from Turkey and the Middle East – the Muhajirs – bought up some of these vacant houses, but then sold them on and left Abkhazia with the proceeds.
The lost village of Shroma
With a friend, I take a drive along the Gumista River to the village of Kamani. Just north of Sukhumi, there is a tall church tower; built, I was told, from the stones of ruined houses in the area. A few kilometres further on, the road bends in a series of right angles. The overgrown front gardens obscure from view the remains of the former inhabitants' houses; few natural forests have locked garden gates. This was once Shroma, a majority Svan Georgian village, deserted since 1993.
On the road to Shroma: villagers' houses are gradually fading into the greenery.
As we approach Kamani, English and Russian signs from the HALO trust warn of landmines. The Church of Kamani is all that is left of what used to be a Svan community. The eleventh century building, restored towards the end of Soviet rule, sits on top of a hill commanding a bend in the river below. There is no longer a local congregation, but the church is somehow still functioning, and there is evidence of recent renovation. Abkhaz Cyrillic script can be seen on the newer icons, whilst the ornate iron doors still bear Georgian letters, unusual now in this particular part of the world.
The gates to the monastery, a three-storey red brick building with a caved-in roof, remain locked. Two builders (perhaps aspiring monks) sit drinking tea. ‘For the grace of God,’ Raul and Arda are helping with the restoration. They also want to plant vines again, and to start growing fruit and vegetables. The convent casts a shadow over us, and our conversation: 'That was destroyed by the Communists... And the buildings in the village too' says Arda. This is a country with a turbulent past.
Sukhumi's Parliament Building has been left abandoned, its dereliction a monument to Abkhazian victory over Georgia.
The Sukhumi skyline is dominated by the derelict hulk of the Abkhaz Parliament Building. In 2008, Mayor Alias Labakhua proposed tearing it down, and replacing it with a proper home for the Republic's legislature. The dead building, however, still stands, in much the same condition as it was in 1993, a monument to the horrors of war, and a very noticeable one, in this central district of Sukhumi where much has been rebuilt and refurbished. The lesser horrors of peacetime have taken over: syringes and vodka bottles, a mattress or two; lift shafts full of rubble. The bullet holes are still there, as is Lenin's plinth, though he has long since gone. It is a memorial Sukhumi would rather forget but cannot.
This is a peculiar form of archaeology. I meet Lola who recounts that when she was younger, she used to play in some of the ruined buildings. All sorts of treasures could be found; to illustrate the point, she shows me a few salvaged books from a ruined library: a detailed guide in Georgian to the vineyards and grape varieties of Georgian wine. Old Georgian books, she adds, are sometimes burnt. 'Getting the dog shit off them' she sighs 'was not easy.'
A sub-tropical playground
The country's historic architectural gems are no less blighted. The winding roads of Sukhumi Mountain, to the capital's north-east, are a testament to what was once a sub-tropical playground for the elite of the Tsarist and Soviet empires. Here, summer villas fade in the sunshine. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, hotels opened, with international names – the Europe, Florida, France and San Remo. The ailments of the Empire's elite could supposedly be best cured in Sukhumi, and the sanatoriums followed. Having decreed that Abkhazians were outside the pale, and could not live within five kilometres of the coast (and no closer than twenty to Sukhumi), wealthy Russians and Greeks experimented with new architectural styles. The infrastructure for the growing resort town quickly followed. The Soviets had much the same idea: 'Let's create a new Soviet Florida!' exclaimed a 1934 issue of Ogonyok magazine.
The 1933 Hotel Abkhazia, built in Soviet Florida style, stands empty, scarred by a fire in 1985, although neighbouring buildings in the city centre have seen some ambitious, and tasteful, conservation work. On Sukhumi Mountain, one of the city's finest villas, Villa Aloisi, built in Eclectic style in 1896, is obscured behind scaffolding. Restoration work is continuing here, thanks to an anonymous new owner.
The Villa Aloisi in Sukhumi - one of Sukhumi's architectural gems and now under renovation
In 1999, Anzor Agumaa of the Sukhumi Society of Abkhaz History and Culture, published an exhibition catalogue on Sukhumi's architectural heritage. Much has changed since then, and a number of buildings then listed, have since been saved from complete ruin. Yet there is still much work to be done. Most revealing, perhaps, are his accounts of what happened to the built landscape: General Averkiev's 1905 Art Nouveau villa was destroyed in 1992 when a helicopter crashed on to its roof; the three villas of the Chachba princely dynasty fared no better: on one page of Agumaa's catalogue, Prince G. Chachba reclines, cigarette holder in mouth, sword by his side and a smirk on his face, whilst the other shows his devastated villa in 1999; the larger sanatoriums outside the city, were also badly looted and vandalized;
Orphans of war
Peter Nasmyth, journalist and author of several books on Georgia, has visited Abkhazia, and he describes the ruined buildings across the politically unrecognised state as the 'children' of both Georgians and Abkhazians alike: 'Like children, they need to be looked after. Often, they were built by Russian and European architects… they are multicultural. They were built for rich businessmen –Italians and Greeks. Batumi is the same. They are from a period when there was a different ethnic sense of identity than what we have today. They carry a respect that transcends the differences between peoples.'
He goes on to say: 'Many Abkhaz and Georgians are ashamed of these ruined buildings. They want them to be repaired. Everybody wants them to be repaired.’ I say, “Save this building for your city, don’t save it for the glorious Abkhaz, or the glorious Georgian, or the glorious Armenian, or the glorious whatever, save it for itself!” When you take the politics out of a building, you have a different approach to political resolution.' Nasmyth shares my view that the terrible state of these bullet-holed buildings creates a sense of danger in Abkhazia, which does not accurately reflect the improved political situation.
Across the other side of the border in Tbilisi, Nasmyth says that the situation seems years away from that in Sukhumi: 'The Hotel Iveria, in the centre of Tbilisi, was, for a long time, a ruin, and full of refugees; now it is a Radisson.'
Nasmyth is passionate about the fate of similar buildings in Batumi and Tbilisi, which he says are sometimes torn down, and then rebuilt as a pastiche of their former selves. Anzor Agumaa calls them, victims of 'constructive destruction.'
There is a legal dilemma about rebuilding: The UN Security Council's 2008 resolution reaffirmed that many of these ruined buildings are not the Abkhazians' to rebuild; and yet one of Abkhazia's most promising routes to economic growth is rebuilding its tourism industry, to become a sub-tropical playground once again; and with Russian investment – still the only country to recognise Abkhazia – that is becoming a more realistic prospect, albeit illegal.
Manana Gurgulia, Chief Editor of Abkhazia's Apsny Press, accepts that in order to maximise the country's tourist potential, the issue of the ruined buildings must be resolved. She expresses the prevailing orthodoxy in Sukhumi, namely, that those who started the war in 1992 should pay for its consequences: 'The damage caused by the war in Abkhazia was approximately twelve billion US dollars. If Georgia compensates Abkhazia for the damage caused by the war it unleashed, then Abkhazia will look for ways to compensate the Georgian refugees for their lost property.'
A peculiar archaeology
On both sides of the border, owners of buildings in Abkhazia know that they have to find some way to resolve their property disputes. Leaving nature to reclaim these buildings renders them useless to Abkhazian and Georgian alike; however, restoring them without a legal basis would be seen by the international community as a violation of refugees' property rights. Moreover, the Abkhazian government is well aware of the need for legitimate private investment to finance restoration.
Meanwhile, across the border in Russia's Krasnodar region, real estate prices in Sochi are booming, in anticipation of the city's 2014 Winter Olympics. Investments in property in nearby Abkhazia, while high-risk, could bring good short-term profits; yet local authorities in Sukhumi and Gagra do seem to appreciate the aesthetic dangers such rebuilding could bring: goodbye Villa Aloisi, hello Aloisi apartment block.
These ruined reminders of the war have locked Abkhazians into an economic, political, social and architectural dilemma, and they are a constant visible reminder of the difficulties they face, rebuilding their country. These skeletons of concrete make war seem closer. In some manner, they have done for twenty years, as a new generation has grown alongside them. What they represent now is normality. Of some sort.
Whether the village houses of Shroma are to disappear forever, or the grand villas of Sukhumi to rise from the ashes, the hope has to be that Abkhazia, the unrecognised, will not become unrecognisable.
Top Photo: “Destroyed by Communists”: The ruins of the monastery at Kamani, derelict since 1993. All photos except Villa Aloisi postcard courtesy of Maxim Edwards.
Since publication, this article has been edited to remove factual inaccuracies concerning events in Kamani during the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict and an alleged report from 1995 which concerns them (eds.)