Words and Photography by Eric Bergeri
It was a wet, moonless night when we stepped out of our bus at the Russian/Abkhazian border. Ahead of us lay a set of dim neon lights, and the long concrete bridge over the river Psou. “I feel like I’m in a World War II movie," whispered Rémi Lamazouère. “Anything could happen here." On the other side of the bridge we could see the flag of Abkhazia fluttering in the air: green and white stripes with a red square in one corner, and a white open hand with seven stars. The palm is a symbol of Abkhazian statehood, while the stripes are supposed to represent religious tolerance - Islam (the green) peacefully coexisting with Christianity (the white). Darius Heristchian, Victor Delerue, Per Löken, Rémi and myself dragged our bags across the bridge, out of Russia and into the unknown. Armed guards on both sides were staring at us. We could feel a tension in the cold air. Finally we reached the Abkhazian side, and several long minutes of sign language and stress followed, until one of the officials - cigarette in mouth and waving my passport - looked fiercely at me:
“Olympique de Marseille?" he barked in rough French. I was confused. “Zidane is the best!" he continued. Now I got it. My Russian visa had been processed in the southern city of Marseille, home of the famous football team and of course Zinedine Zidane. The guard smiled, and suddenly the tension melted. “Welcome to our country," he said. We boarded another bus that drove us to our hotel, several kilometers away in the village of Pitsunda. From there we would set out to ride the last untouched slopes of Europe, in what can truly be described as ‘a country that doesn't exist.’
Abkhazia has a president, a national anthem and even a visa system for foreign visitors (I was number 1062) yet it doesn't appear on any maps because no other countries in the world recognize its sovereign status. Officially, this small piece of sub-tropical Black Sea coastline, with its population of 180,000, is part of Georgia. Squeezed between the eastern shores of the Black Sea and the Caucasus mountain range, and bordered by Russia to the north and Georgia to the south, Abkhazia is a country of striking contrasts. The coastal valleys are humid and subtropical, while glaciers can be found in the mountains. With such a small distance between the seashore and the high peaks, both landscape and climate vary dramatically. During the days of the Soviet Union it was once known as a prime holiday destination for Communist Party officials.
Later that first night we reached our hotel, a big building on the seafront surrounded by palm trees. It looked like nothing had changed here since the ‘60s. In fact that was the overall feeling we had throughout our trip: Abkhazia seems stuck in the past. Built during the height of the Communist era, the lobby of the hotel was enormous, with a small desk on one side and a statue of a local dignitary on the other. We had to hand in our passports. With the exception of a few employees – ladies dressed in black walking across the marble floor - the place appeared empty. The hallways were gigantic, decorated with maps of Abkhazia and other souvenirs from the war of independence against Georgia. Portraits of fallen war heroes were stuck on one wall, over a hand-painted map of the country with the year ‘1993’ in black. It was a dark time for Abkhazia.
In 1991, the same year the Soviet Union collapsed, Georgia became independent. Soon afterwards, Abkhazia made moves to assert its own sovereignty and forge closer ties with Russia. At the time however, less than a fifth of the 550,000 people in Abkhazia were ethnic Abkhaz - the rest of the population was made up largely of Georgians and Armenians. Georgia responded to the unrest by sending troops to the region to enforce the status quo, and by 1992 they had regained control of most of Abkhazia. At this point, paramilitaries from different parts of the Caucasus - armed and trained by Russia – joined the separatist forces and fought back. In late 1993, the Georgians were driven out of Abkhazia amidst fierce fighting. Several thousand people were killed. About a quarter of a million Georgians became refugees, their homes burnt to ashes, and today they are still unable to return. Following a ceasefire in May 1994 Abkhazia declared independence, and the UN sent a peacekeeping force to monitor the situation.
The first morning, we awoke to see rain falling on the marble beside the empty swimming pool. Palm trees here and there reminded us that we were in a sub-tropical climate, while a thin layer of snow covered the ground to form a strange contrast with the vegetation. We took the day off, driving with our guide to the capital of Sukhum. On the way we passed through numerous checkpoints and stopped at some of the main tourist spots. Arriving in the separatist stronghold, we could see scars of the war everywhere. Bullet holes riddled the buildings, and the suburbs were full of burnt-out Georgian houses. Everyone fortunate enough to own a car drove a Lada, the famous Communist manufacturer, and on every corner were further signs of poverty and a shattered economy. Our guide told us that all the ruined houses had been left in that state because rebuilding a Georgian home would bring bad luck. More likely the superstition was a convenient excuse for the fact no one could afford the concrete to build anything. Since 1996 an economic embargo has isolated Abkhazia from the rest of the world, with the sole exception of Russia. Unsurprisingly, the few goods we found in the small street side shops were from across the border. These shops, usually owned by someone living in a house right next door, were the closest thing we could find to a supermarket.
Russian support has been a lifeline for Abkhazia since the fall of the Soviet Union. Not only did Russia alone ignore the embargo, it also provided unofficial help during the war for independence and continues to give Russian passports to any Abkhazians who want one. Recently it has built a mobile phone network and encouraged tourism to return, and a Russian peacekeeping force remains stationed in the country. Of course, all of these things have infuriated Georgia and made the situation even worse. The truth is that everyone - Russia together with Abkhazia, and Georgia allied with the West - wants to gain a foothold in the Caucasus because it is a strategically important energy corridor. Pipelines from the Middle East to the West can use the region to by-pass Russia and unstable Iran. Russia, for its part, plays the situation like it played the Cold War: it blows air on the fire. Putin's goal is to prevent Georgia and its Western allies from gaining much influence in the area, so he uses the volatile situation in Abkhazia to his advantage. Here, like many other places in the world, it seems that big powers are at work in the struggle for oil.
Our short day trip to Sukhum gave us a whole new perspective on the troubles. In a conflict so long and deep-rooted, who can tell which side is right and which is wrong? We certainly couldn’t. The people themselves were very kind to us everywhere we went. Talking about the war was not such a big deal. An unofficial ‘taxi driver’ summed the whole sorry affair up best: “One morning I woke up and my neighbours were not my neighbours anymore, but my enemies." It was a lesson in politics. With such a poorly educated population, it was all too easy for the government to drive people to do stupid things – which is why dictatorships the world over hate books, students and intellectuals.
We made it back to the hotel that night, and by the morning the weather seemed to have improved. A heli was flown in from some unknown military base, along with a top officer of the Abkhaz army. This formidable colonel was responsible for defending Caucasus air space during the days of the Soviet Union. It was still too unsettled to fly into the hills, but during that second day the skies began to clear, and by the late afternoon we had a majestic view of the mountains. The air was still. The sun was setting into the Black Sea. Gradually, the surrounding peaks grew red and reflected in the lakes. It could not get any better.
The following morning, we were up early for a scramble. By 9am sharp we were outside the hotel, at the pick up zone close to the beach. The huge MI-8 flew in. Deafened by the roar of the rotorblades, we jumped on board and it took us straight up; as soon as we cleared the foothills, we saw the gigantic peaks looming behind. Then, after quite a scary approach, it dropped us on a remote ridge. We couldn’t ride any of the south facing slopes because the warmth and sun had made the snow too unstable. We would have to stick to the shadows. The powder was deep at high altitude, becoming more and more baked as you descended and as the day wore on. We bagged a few shots, then looked for some more lines to ride the next day. The pilot was really scary. It took him several long minutes to drop us off at each of the runs. Time and again he would wobble towards a touch down and suddenly take off again - our hearts in our mouths – and on one peak he dropped us on an overhanging cornice, before slicing it with the tail rotor as he set off again. Apart from the snow stability, the pilot's skills were our main concern.
When we came back to the hotel, with large smiles on our faces, a small crowd of people gathered around us. We waved and they smiled back. What must they think of us? Flying around in a helicopter, all dressed up in fancy clothes, while they lived in little more than a shantytown. We went to bed quite early. We had three more days ahead of us.
Unfortunately, we awoke to find high clouds obscuring the sun and a strong wind blowing in some darker ones. We couldn’t fly. We went out for a walk around the hotel. For some reason I ended up alone, walking along the road towards to the nearest village. I walked passed it. Eventually I realised that the road was not following the shore anymore and took a dirt track, expecting to reach the beach where I could cut back to the hotel. I found myself amid ruins and burnt houses. What seemed to have once been a nice neighborhood with houses and farms was completely destroyed and abandoned. A strange feeling came over me, as if the deep silence of the ruins were echoing with the screams and tears that had rung out right here, some years ago. Cows and pigs were roaming around freely, looking for food in the piles of garbage here and there. I felt uneasy. As I made my way through the empty streets and collapsed houses, I arrived at another neighborhood where the houses were smaller and intact. There was no one to be seen, but seemingly people were still living in this part of the village. Presumably they were poorer than the people whose houses had been destroyed. I wandered the length of the long dirt street and turned right to the beach, beside a cemetery. What seemed at first sight to be the nicest graveyard ever, with a perfect view over the Black Sea, turned into an unforgettable experience. When I reached the beach I realised that many of the tombs had crumbled and fallen onto the beach, where they were smashed wide open. Coffins could be made out amongst the sand, shards of broken wood and clothing of the dead lying half submerged. As I walked around I was terrified of stepping on someone’s face… even if that person couldn’t really complain about it. What does it mean when a village doesn’t take care of its dead anymore? After a long walk on the beach I finally reached the hotel. Along the way I saw pipes carrying raw sewage straight out into the sea - not so good for summer bathing - and realised that I had never seen a horizon so empty. As a result of the embargo, no boats are allowed. Later that day, the clouds broke up and the sun appeared again for another amazing sunset.
The following morning, a photographer was waiting for us at the helicopter, along with some fur-clad ladies who had been driven there by an old man in an equally old Mercedes. While we waited for the pilot, copilot and various locals to fill up the tank and stand around chatting, these women came over and the local photographer shot some pictures. Later, we heard that people around the town were becoming increasingly curious about us, wondering what kind of stars we must be to charter an army helicopter like that.
Once in the air we discovered that the snow had baked even more over the previous day. Some aspects were definitely a no-go. Still, we found a couple of early morning faces with some decent snow left over. Right after the first drop, Rémi launched a huge, smooth frontside 360 off a ridge - the biggest jump of the trip. A few hours later, Darius flew off a windlip and pulled a perfect method air. We were getting the shots.
The last day of the trip was quite similar. The snow had changed yet again, and we had to fly really close to the Russian border, just a ridge away, to get some decent powder. On the stroke of midday we flew back towards the foothills above the Black Sea, looking for a kicker spot. We finally found a hip. It took us three hours to build and 30 minutes to shoot. Massive spring-type avalanches were rumbling around us and on the steeper part of our hill, right below us. We were not feeling confident. Once we had enough hits done, the heli came back and took us home. Gigantic deep cracks could be seen all over the mountains, revealing large patches of grass. It felt like the whole snowpack could collapse at any moment and come sliding down. We flew back to the hotel, hovering above the snow, as the sun set into the Black Sea in front of us. How could it get any better?
The next two days, during our long journey home - back through the Abkhazian border and Russia - I couldn’t stop thinking about this tragic little country, and how it was without doubt the most beautiful place I’ve seen in my life, with lots of snow, huge mountains, empty beaches and palm trees. It hurts even more to read the recent news and to see that the situation in Georgia is getting worse every day. It seems that the region of Abkhazia is on the verge of war again - if it’s not already at war by the time you read this.
Mother of the Gods
A brief history of Abkhazia’s favourite automobile.
What do you call a Lada with twin exhaust pipes?
- A wheelbarrow
Known as the mother of the gods, ‘Lada’ is the Slavic goddess of beauty. Ironic then that this was the name given to a car company whose designs are something akin to a bulldog chewing a wasp.
The Lada that us westerners will know best is the eloquently titled BA3-2101 (doesn’t it just roll off the tongue?) often badged as the ‘Classic’ or ‘Riva’ depending where in the world you lay your hat. The 2101 was introduced in 1970 and is loosely based on the Fiat 124, with a choice of three engines ranging from 1.2 to 1.5 L. They put out anywhere from 60 to a massive 75 BHP on a good day. Whoah there mule! To date, it has sold 18.5 million worldwide.
The Lada’s popularity is down to a number of reasons: competitive price, DIY friendly mechanics, functionality and - in the former USSR at least - a distinct lack of competition.
Lada is part of the world's third largest automotive group (after General Motors and Toyota) and their cars been exported to every continent in the world. The only large economy not to import them is… can you guess? The USA. “You want a goddamn Rusky motor? You commie bastard!" Funnily enough AutoVAZ, who own the Lada brand, now produce cars for American icon Chevy - ironic or what?
Ladas are commonly employed as police cars, taxis and a range of public service/civil defence vehicles in many parts of Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. And in Russia, pretty much every car is one.