The country swallowed by war

The country swallowed by war

The road leading to Akarmara is a long dirt track that seems to never end. The ride tosses and bumps you over numerous holes, lunar craters in an idyllic landscape of mountains, deep gorges and woods. And then there are the many ruins, scattered among the greenery and building skeletons, forgotten memories of a dazzling past.

Akarmara is located in the Republic of Abkhazia and today is primarily known as a ghost town. But it has not always been that way, and, even today, a few tenacious inhabitants don’t want to abandon the place that has always been their home. Abkhazia is a 200-kilometer long, 100-kilometer wide strip of land along the Black Sea. During the Soviet period, the coastline was beloved by the communist elite for holiday. The subtropical paradise was developed for tourism and had high-level accommodations. Here, politicians and important USSR figures, such as Stalin, Beria and Khrushchev came to stay, and Brezhnev even had a dacha, or country home, here.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Georgia proclaimed itself independent of Russia, and, in turn, Abkhazia proclaimed independence from Georgia. The latter did not accept Abkhazia’s independence and so it invaded the region, triggering a civil war that lasted a year, devastating the country, and leaving 30,000 dead and displacing tens of thousands.

Today Abkhazia is a non-place, not even mentioned on official maps: a ghost state. It is an area of disputed status with de facto independence and without any recognition from the United Nations or the European Union. The Abkhaz Republic is in fact recognized only by seven UN member states (including Russia) and two states that are also are not recognized internationally. Georgia lays claim to the entire territory, declaring it a “territory occupied by Russia.”

Although more than 25 years have passed since the end of the war, several cities are still largely abandoned. Half of the Abkhaz population, especially in the east, was of Georgian nationality and fled during the war, depopulating the region.

The international embargo and the unrecognition of independence by most of the world prevented the development of the economy and foreign investments in Akarmara.

The veterans of Akarmara

Along the dirt road to Akarmara, a railway bridge suddenly appears. It was used to carry coal extracted in Akarmara to the nearby city of Tkvarcheli and from there to rest of the Soviet Union.

The name of Akarmara refers to an area consisting of three towns: Dzhantukha, Polyana and Akarmara itself, which fall under the jurisdiction of Tkvarcheli, which received city status in 1942 after having become a very important mining center. It prospered quickly, and its inhabitants, including those of the Akarmara area, did very well. As was normal in all Soviet mining towns, a miner earned five times the average salary. At the time it was not easy to find a free apartment, and many dreamed of moving to what was essentially a place for a privileged few. “It was better in the times of the Soviet Union,” says Vlad, one of the few inhabitants we meet in Dzhantukha. “Back then there was food and wealth for all, whereas now there are only ruins and poverty.”

Vlad invites us to his home in what remains of a beautiful building in neo-classical Stalinist style.

Across five floors, the only apartment still occupied is Vlad’s. The rest of the structure is literally collapsing. We climb the stairs passing through doors that lead to nothing, gutted apartments, unsafe walls and fallen ceilings. As we enter Vlad’s house, which has a simple but welcoming interior with Soviet-style furniture, he begins to tell us his story. “I was born in Dzhantukha, and my father was a miner. He came from Tamysh, in Russia, whereas my mother, a cable car worker, she came from Labinsk. People moved to this city to work in the mine, and everyone met each other here, like my parents, who then decided to start a family. During the Soviet period the quality of life was excellent. A miner had a good salary, and in the city, you could find particular goods that you couldn’t in other places. Everything was well-organized, with shops, restaurants, the Alashara cinema, schools, and a hospital of the highest quality.”

Pictures of Pierpaolo Mittica

While Vlad speaks, the wind beats the shutters, and every so often we can hear a dull thud. It is not the famous “ghosts of Akarmara,” only parts of the surrounding buildings that occasionally fall off under the weight of time.

After offering us a glass of vodka, Vlad continues to remember, “The problems here started with the 1992 war. The area of Tkvarcheli was sieged by Georgian troops, and we were all blockaded for the duration of the conflict. It was a very difficult period because supplies and provisions wouldn’t arrive. There was no heating or electricity. To survive we could only attempt to pass by the blockades to reach neighboring villages and exchange our goods for food. We risked a lot because we had to go through territories occupied by the Georgian army, but we had no other choice. War was a huge tragedy for everyone. We were just waiting for it to end to go back to living in peace. Here in Akarmara there were different nationalities, and we lived peacefully respecting each other. Even during the war, when we were blockaded, we continued to help each other.”

Vlad continues: “Once the conflict ended, we had to restore everything – heating, electricity – and international red cross volunteers brought food and basic necessities. It was a huge help for all of us. But the mines were now closed, and there were no possibilities for economic recovery. So these towns began to depopulate. In 2000 a Turkish company settled nearby to produce cement and gave jobs to 300 people. But five years ago the company closed. Currently, around 30 people live in Dzhantukha. Fifteen each in Polyana and Akarmara, but I decided to stay because this is where I was born and raised. It’s my home. Also, after the war, my parents were old and could not move elsewhere. It was my duty to stay with them. In 2001 my mother passed away and in 2011 my father. Fortunately, today I work as a guard for what remains of the Turkish company. Economically I can live, but I could not afford to buy a house somewhere else. The prices are too high. And anyway, I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else. I love this place. I love this house.”

While Vlad’s words crumble before us like the ruins of this city, Nana, his daughter, prepares lunch. She doesn’t live here but often comes to visit her father. Nana had to leave Dzhantukha and move to Tkvarcheli to look for better job opportunities. After turning off the stove we sit in the living room and she says, “I had a beautiful childhood here, so beautiful and carefree, one I would wish for any child. People were hospitable and welcoming, the atmosphere warm and nature lush. We felt free. We played all day. But we also felt sadness for what was around us, the abandoned buildings and houses, because we knew, from the stories of our parents, what the city was like before the war and how well people lived. We knew who had lived in those buildings and was no longer there. But for us this city was magical, and I would come back to live here immediately if there was at least a shop where you could buy food. I strongly believe in a future for this place. Obviously we cannot restore all the buildings, but perhaps with tourism will come new life.”

As we head to the car, Nana looks out of the window, one of the few still intact (and who knows for how much longer) to say goodbye.

The next day, we return to the area in search of Polyana, the other city that has no trace. Not even our guide, Miron, who knows the area like the back of his hand, knows
exactly where it is, and the maps give no hint. In fact, this is the most remote fraction of the Akarmara area.

Pictures of Alessandro Tesei

We try a few roads, risking getting stuck, but, after an hour of failed attempts, at the top of a rough uphill drive that seems to lead to nowhere, Polyana appears. Unlike Akarmara and Dzhantukha, architecturally characterized by Stalinist neoclassicism, Polyana is a classic Soviet town with gigantic rectangular apartment buildings.

On its empty streets we meet Ravaz, a man marked by time who, intrigued by our presence, offers to accompany us and tell us about his home. He speaks only Abkhaz and not a word of Russian, so much so that even our guide struggles to understand him. The history of this third town is almost the same as the other two with which it shares the same sad fate of decay.

Along the abandoned streets, Ravaz gives us a list of everything that used to exist there: the shops, schools, kindergartens and apartments all full of life. While we imagine what life was like here, Ravaz tells us what it’s like today, “Most of the very few inhabitants remaining in these districts live only thanks to nature, cultivating the land, raising cows and pigs or producing honey. Some of them work in the city of Tkvarcheli. The elderly have a small pension and some of us live by collecting bricks from abandoned buildings and then selling them. It’s a very hard life. We survive with what we can, but nobody wants to leave their homes.”

Ravaz stops in front of a ruined building, looks up and shouts, “Ghennady!” He is a close friend of his who lives on the third floor. The other two have practically collapsed.

Ghennady does not respond. Today he probably went to Tkvarcheli to sell some bricks. This is confirmed by Sveta, an elderly lady we meet later as she is getting water from the well. Ravaz’s few other friends are also not there. Today they went to the city to visit relatives. But they will come back because the bond with their land, with these splendid towns immersed in nature, the memory of a lost paradise, is so strong.