I crossed from Abkhazia into Georgia to reach the town of Zugdidi, and my thoughts inevitably turned to my mother. She had never visited Georgia, but I saw that the people there had faced exactly the same dilemmas that she faced back in 1939: should they flee and abandon everything, or should they risk staying?
For my mother, as the Nazis invaded Poland, the choice was easy. She ran away, with the rest of her Jewish middle-class family. They left a modern apartment, relatives, friends, jobs, family photographs and documents, a prosperous life with its hard-won routines, and their plans for the future.
When I sat opposite Antonia Tsentalya and looked into her eyes, I saw the same refugee's story. It had been the same for her: neighbours turning up in her house, shouting that Kitauri was already on fire, the enemy was getting closer to Gochari, and why were they still there while the Abkhaz military was attacking Ochamchira district?
Antonia, her husband, and their five children, fled without much more thought. Did they at least have time to pack some essentials? Clothes, cosmetics, documents, those invaluable family photographs? She looked at me as though I had landed in Georgia from a different planet. They had taken nothing. There were stories about wild and cruel Chechens and other highlanders, fighting on the side of their Abkhaz kin, burning everything in their path.
The family's biggest problem was Antonia's sick and half-paralysed mother-in-law. They took turns carrying her and even the children did their bit. Although she slowed them down, they never once considered leaving her behind. Finally, a man with a tractor agreed to give the ragged family a lift. Until then Antonia would never have believed how many desperate people could fit on one tractor. Maybe thirty, maybe even forty, clinging to the roof and sides, crammed onto each other's laps, every one of them praying there was enough fuel to get them to Gali, the capital of the neighbouring district.
Antonia Tsentalya helps her daughter Khatuna to run a kindergarten for children of refugees from Akbhazia
Listening to Antonia, I believed every word. She was the family matriarch, with her husband still ill after a stroke several years ago. Her black t-shirt and skirt adorned with flowers added a measure of feminine charm to her peasant looks. Even though she must have been sixty, Antonia radiated the energy of a woman used to working hard in life. Fifteen years after the war, she was still able to laugh about the tractor and its mountain of people. ‘It's a shame we didn't have a camera,' she exclaimed. ‘One photo of that tractor and its human cargo and we'd have had to send it to the editor of the Guinness Book of Records!'
The most interesting aspect of Antonia's story was her own ethnic background. She was Abkhaz, born into an Abkhaz family, and with Abkhaz as her native tongue. In the 1970s she was a student at Sukhumi medical school. That is where she met her Georgian husband, Gogla. At first they kept the wedding secret and spoke to each other in the Soviet lingua franca, Russian. When they finally let their families know, and moved into the house of Gogla's parents, she had no choice but to learn Georgian. It's not an easy language, and back then her Georgian was strewn with errors, but she felt it a moral obligation to learn the language of the family with whom she shared her food, house, emotions, dreams and plans.
Antonia's husband worked as a driver, while she made her living as a nurse. The jobs didn't bring in much money, but the family was comfortable thanks to a large piece of land that they inherited from the family's ancestors. Owning such land was something that marked out the republics of the warmer south Caucasus from the rest of the USSR. In contrast to the Central Asian republics, not to mention Russia itself, people in the Soviet Republic of Georgia could own substantial plots of land, and construct private houses with more than two storeys.
Antonia's husband's family added hard work to this inheritance, and were able to boast a good life by Soviet standards. They grew watermelons, maize, grapes and hazelnuts. In a shed in their yard they kept large jugs full of fermenting wine and chacha.
It was this contented life that filled Antonia's dreams after the escape to Zugdidi. A decade and a half later those dreams had become less frequent, but when she had them, the images were sharp in focus and vivid in colour. She remembered the family celebrations, with long successions of toasts; there were the family arguments, and the everyday challenges and joys of family life. Antonia wiped the tears away from her eyes as she remembered those days.
‘It was a good life. But who destroyed it?' she asked. ‘Who didn't want us to live in peace?'
Her answer was prompt, but hardly original. It's one that can be heard across all the countries of the former Soviet Union, mostly from the mouths of the old, for whom the unfolding of history has brought nothing but personal suffering and pain.
‘It was the politicians!' she exclaimed. ‘They play their games without thinking or caring about people like us.'
For eight months the refugee family lived in the crowded house of relatives in Gali, in the south of Abkhazia. But as the war went on, and Abkhaz forces recaptured the capital, Sukhumi, they had to flee once again. Together with thousands of others they crossed the Inguri River that separates Abkhazia from the rest of the Georgian republic. They settled in Zugdidi, a sleepy provincial town near the de facto border, and as close as they could be to their old home village.
I tried to imagine the scenes in Zugdidi as the refugees arrived en masse. The chaos of the evacuation, the shortages of food and accommodation, the lack of news about friends and relatives, and the desperation of local officials unable to deal with the sudden influx of refugees. At the back of everybody's minds, usually unspoken, was the question of whether they would ever be able to return to the places their families had called home for centuries.
The refugees living in the ceramics factory in Chavchavadze Street are mostly from Abkhazia's Ochamchira district.
Zugdidi was still full of these Internally Displaced Persons. More than forty thousand were living there when we visited in August. Before we arrived at Antonia's flat we had seen two giant concrete buildings in Chavchavadze Street, which had originally been a ceramics factory. They had since become home to several hundred refugees. This was something that could never in their wildest dreams have occurred to the factory's original architects. The production halls had been crudely partitioned into living units with basic privacy afforded by boards of plywood. The bunker-like external walls had been drilled to make holes for windows and chimneys. Those chimneys ventilated primitive ovens, used for heating and baking bread. Two latrines had been dug in the earth outside. Several years after the refugees first moved in, money from international humanitarian organisations paid for two bathrooms with showers, sinks and a washing machine, all arranged in a little pavilion in the factory courtyard. The refugees living in the ceramics factory in Chavchavadze Street were mostly from Ochamchira district. The homes that they feared they might never live in again were only an hour away by car.
At times of relative peace between Abkhazia and Georgia the families were able to get to their native villages, helping the handfuls of relatives who remained there to harvest walnuts and other crops, earning a few pennies extra to help them survive the winter. The Georgian government allowance for IDPs is 22 laris (around $15) per month. In Zugdidi most adults spent their time at the huge local market, desperately trying to earn a few extra laris.
Antonia and her daughter Khatuna both knew people living at the Chavchavadze Street compound, and counted themselves lucky to have found accommodation in an old medical clinic in the outskirts of Zugdidi. They were first brought there by distant relatives of her husband, and the staff at the clinic vacated two rooms for the family to move into.
The first years were incredibly hard. The only way to the city centre was on foot, a distance of about four miles, and the only chance to earn money was wheeling and dealing at the market. They soon realized that they could grow tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and carrots on the land surrounding the clinic. Later they bought a cow and some chickens. They worked hard to make their lives better, as they had in their old village.
‘Other people from Abkhazia followed us and moved into other buildings in the clinic compound,' Antonia remembered. ‘Now there are around fifteen hundred people living here.'
Antonia knew the story of nearly every family. The theme was always the same: they saw their houses set on fire and their relatives shot dead right in front of them; they remember the first nights after the escape, finding what shelter they could, in basements, tents, barracks, or anything they could improvise; they remember the taste of their own tears, and the feeling of helplessness, despair and abandonment. They were powerless in the face of this tragedy that changed their lives forever.
Antonia's daughter Khatuna tried to do something to help the children of the refugees, many of them born in exile. She had the idea of setting up a kindergarten in the old clinic. While the parents journeyed into the city for the chance to earn a few laris, the children were taken care of. They were fed well, learned songs and how to draw, and had the chance to play with dolls and toys, just like the children of normal families in normal countries. At first Khatuna ran the kindergarten as a volunteer. A year or two later, humanitarian organisations noticed her work and provided the funding to keep it going. Antonia also found work in the kindergarten as a cook.
So did Antonia still want to return to her home?
Twice in the last fifteen years she had visited her native village. Both times she was travelling to family funerals. The first time, the Abkhaz border guard didn't want to let her through. It didn't matter that she could speak fluent Abkhaz, was Abkhaz herself, and had a large cohort of relatives waiting on the other side of the border, including her brother. The only documents she carried were a new Georgian passport and her birth certificate. All other documents had been left behind during their escape. On that first occasion, and the subsequent one, only bribes had made getting across the de facto border possible.
‘Yes, we want to go back,' she said with resolve. ‘All our children are learning Abkhaz, and we tell them about our old life there almost every day.'
I told Antonia my own mother's story. She had ended up in Soviet Uzbekistan, deep in Central Asia, and lived there throughout the 1940s. During those years of cruel war that destroyed half the world, she dreamed only of going home. But when she did return, she could only weep at what had been lost. Her whole family had perished in the Holocaust. Her entire previous existence had also vanished, leaving a new one that looked and smelled differently, and not just because of the new Soviet domination of Poland.
‘It will be the same with us', agreed Antonia, nodding her head sadly. ‘But we should not be so divided. When I joined the Georgian family of my husband I was surprised how similar our cultures are. We eat similar dishes, dance similar dances. We shouldn't be fighting. Simple people are innocent.'
There was a glimmer of hope that her dream of return, however difficult, might happen. Abkhazia's leaders, including President Bagapsh, have spoken openly against allowing refugees to return to central Abkhazia, to cities such as Sukhumi, Gudauty, Pitsunda and Gagra. They argued that in the Soviet years Tbilisi kept sending Georgian settlers to Abkhazia, to change its demography and dilute the Abkhaz hold on their land. But in the south the politicians were more open to compromise, and did not rule out negotiating some form of return for the refugees.
It was also possible that Antonia would die as a refugee in Zugdidi, with her children and grandchildren exiled from Abkhazia forever. From what she said, I understood that the most important thing for Antonia was that there should be no more fighting, no more war.
Zugdidi's colourful market boasts an abundance of delicious fresh food
After taking leave of Antonia, I walked around the centre of Zugdidi. The huge, colourful market boasted an abundance of delicious fresh food. I took an enjoyable stroll along an old boulevard lined with maple trees, reminiscent of pre-Soviet Tsarist days but named after Georgia's first post-Soviet president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. A section of the boulevard had been turned into a fountain, with streams of water spouting up into the air from paving stones painted in the colours of the Georgian flag. Children ran in and out of the jets of water, as mothers and fathers kept watch from a safely dry distance. I stopped in a local cafeteria for some kharcho, a soup of hot peppers and meat, accompanied by a glass of chacha. Honey coloured melons sat for sale in every local grocer's shop, alongside juicy tomatoes that had ripened under the Georgian sun. I noticed a puzzlingly high number of pharmacies and hairdresser salons in the city centre. If it were not for my bald head, I would have been tempted to enter one for a swift hair cut.
There were plenty of people on the streets, but the atmosphere in Zugdidi, so near the de facto border with Abkhazia, was calm, almost sleepy. Yes, they had watched television news reports about shootings and the rise in tension in South Ossetia, reported Nino, the young receptionist in our hotel. But, she argued, that is a long way from Zugdidi.
‘Anyway, we are used to tension. It will be okay here, even if it gets worse over in South Ossetia.'
Nino was wrong. In less than a week after military action began in South Ossetia, more than one hundred Russian tanks crossed the Inguri River and occupied Zugdidi.
Zygmunt Dzieciolowski's travel to Georgia and Abkhazia last year was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting (http://www.pulitzercenter.org/)
On the Georgian side of the border mostly cows welcome travellers arriving from Abkhazia
Also by Zygmunt Dzieciolowski:
Tbilisi: twenty hours before the war: http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/tbilisi-twenty-hours-before-the-war
Sukhumi: Cafe Lika on the brink of war: http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/email/sukhumi-cafe-lika-on-the-brink-of-war