Fort Russ. July 2nd, 2016.
Preface by Tatzhit:
As the famous quote goes, “war never changes“.
This is especially true of post-Soviet civil wars – my studies of them showed that the stories are very similar. Remove the names and places, and you usually wouldn’t know which war is the narrator talking about. And both sides always have their own versions of the truth, of course.
Here is one such version, from Abkhazia. It isn’t intended to explain the entire history of that war, but rather explain what Abkhazians feel about it, and how these civil wars tend to go, in general.
Viewer discretion is advised – the story gets rather graphic at times.
Source: Maxim Shaturov. The author lived in Abkhazia during the war. The story is published on artofwar.ru – a website that has thousands of memoirs from various post-Soviet wars. He is relaying his conversation with a friend Aslan , who fought in the Abkhaz militia.
Aslan says: You know, back then I thought our sun has set. And would never come back up.
Aslan does not like to reminisce about the war. But now, in the company of a friend, after a few glasses of strong wine, he wanted to talk.
– I still can’t understand why the war started. I can understand Chechnya: they were killing Russians, kicking them out, Dudaev wanted a mono-ethnic Chechnya… But we never touched nobody! [Georgians] had everything: government posts, money, power.
We just wanted keep on living like before. That’s all.
These mountains, the sea, the sky – for everyone! We would only be happy if others enjoyed it all alongside us!
– You know, there are no bad nations – there are bad people. Us and Georgians lived together in peace.
Heck, we got along with everyone. You know, this land was called “little USSR” – so many different ethnicities shared it with us…
– When Gamsakhurdia began to spew his drive about “mononational Georgia”, few of took him seriously.
But then this man came to power. They have voted him in.
And then he abolished the Ossetian autonomy. And they again supported it.
And that was scary already.
But … we still did not can believe that they could try to drive us away from our land.
We thought it all calmed down, when – wham! – Shevarnadze sent tanks.
Me and Adgur were in Laty. Mom with little Damey – here. Dad – in Moscow on a business trip.
Dad abandoned everything, rushed back, planes were already blocked, took a train, made it Gagry – but Georgians have already landed troops there. He walked through the mountains to Gumista. There, our guys wouldn’t let him through, shouting “Your passport says you’re Abkhazian, they will kill you on the spot!”. So he joined the militia there.
<Abkhaz militia, 1992-93. Source>
And mom was here. Georgians came, shouted: “Do not worry, we will not hurt you.” She calmed down.
But then these ones were sent to the frontlines. New ones came in their place. Caught our neighbor, shouted to him: “Show us where Abkhazians live!”
The neighbor’s wife sneaked off. Ran up, shouted to mother “Rimma, run! They are coming for you!!!”
Mom grabbed Damey, and hid in the woods across the river. … Spent two days there.
I would understand if they were hunting a guy. Why were they after a woman with an infant?
Strangely, after the war, people often say “shouting” instead of “speaking”. As if, in this simple and strange way, they are trying to convey something to the rest of the world.
And dad, he took the uniform and documents from a dead Georgian soldier. He had one crafty guy in his unit, he replaced the photos in passport. The officers let dad go, and he snuck across the frontline to get mom. Dad spoke Georgian flawlessly, without an accent. He talked his way out of it whenever he was stopped by patrols.
Came home, everything is looted, mom is nowhere to be seen. He asked the neighbors, they said she’s hiding in a forest. He found her, she saw Georgian uniform, got scared. He shouts “Rimma, it’s me, Anatoly!”. She started crying… Then he took her to our side, through the forests.
Then, looting really started… Why am I telling you all this? You lived here back then, same as me.
You know, in these early days of the war, I thought that it’s all over. There are one hundred thousand of us. That’s counting women and children. Yes, many locals: Russians, lots of Armenians , Greeks, even some Georgians – they fought for us. But still, how many could we field? And with what weapons?
And they … They could probably conscript and arm a hundred thousand soldiers within weeks.
As Ioseliani, or Ketovani – I do not remember which one – said: “We will kill a hundred thousand Abkhazians, even if a million Georgians would die to do it!”
Fine, he hated us. But why didn’t he care for his own?
That was very scary. I joined the militia. Without a weapon, only with a knife…
I thought that we would be gone. And we must fight only to die in battle, rather than on our knees. In those early days, there was no hope of victory. They have tanks, planes, helicopters, a large regular army.
We had our police unit with shortened AKs. And militia with hunting rifles and clubs.
And then, the volunteers came.
I remember, someone ran up to me and shouted: “Russians came to our aid! Many have guns!” – And I was so happy. We no longer stood alone.
Later, they did a lot of evil, yes. But then, they helped us. Although by the end it was noticeable that they were not there to fight our battles, as much as study our experience and train.
The volunteers helped us a lot. What we could do alone? Only die. Die to the last man.
And they didn’t only bring us some extra men and support. They gave us hope that our night might end. They did not give speeches – they acted. And that spoke far stronger than words.
<Armenian volunteers from 1st Bagration battalion>
<Volunteers from Confederation of Caucasus peoples (Chechens, Adygs, Kabardins, etc. etc.)>
Yes, the Confederation of the Caucasus Peoples has also voted for independence of Chehnya, after voting to support us. That was the situation back then.
And they also voted that the situation in Abkhazia was a war crime, and that retaliatory acts of terror should be conducted in Georgia. But we didn’t do a single one. Because we understood that we need to fight for our land, not murder civilians. Ardzinba was categorically against it. You’d know what we’d turn into, if we went down that path.
We could cross the frontlines, get to Tbilisi or even Mingrelia. But we didn’t attack them there, not even once. We fought for our land, and only on our land.
So, let’s drink to war never happening again.
– Do you know why they did not win? – Says Aslan. – They had no spirit! – He points to his chest. – They did not have this. No heart. They were afraid to die!
They had many men that did not believe in anything. No God, nothing greater than themselves.
You don’t have to pray in a church to have it. But you have to know right from wrong. Be taught by your parents, or in school. During the Great Patriotic war, our grandparents went and died. Died horribly, but did not break. Hitler broke all of Europe, but he could not break them. They had spirit. They raised us to have it.
For man to get out of the trench, don’t break in battle, he needs spirit. And he needs soul, so that he would not be afraid of death. People without a soul are scared of dying. Because a person without a soul has nothing waiting for them. Facing the abyss.
And a person with a soul has something. He knows what he’s fighting for. He can appreciate the connection with his land, his people. And for this, he is ready to die.
They had people with spirit, too. But you remember, how most of their [conscripted] soldiers were. They outnumbered those with spirit, discouraged them.
We fought to win or die.
Many of them fought to loot or to have fun.
– You know, – he continues – they could attack when they seriously outnumbered us. But when it was the other way around, most of them fled, abandoning the few brave ones be captured or killed.
But they still had a lot of fighters. Especially at the beginning. But many… how do you say in Russian – riff-raff, right? Masses of people who came to avoid prison, or to rob.
If they didn’t send those bad ones, they could have won. Because, when one half was in the trenches, the other was busy looting. Those at the front, saw it and thought, too, why should I fight for the other guy? And, also starts looting… You see?
And moreover … You know how many locals, who at did not get involved, joined the militia?
You know how the Eastern Front appeared? A whole front!
People from Tkuarchal came to Ochamchira when the war began. Looked, everything is in order. Came back, shouted: “To avoid bloodshed, let’s surrender the city. Georgians keep order.”
One or two days later, went to Ochamchira again, to negotiate surrender. And by then, the rearguard, non-fighting units, have taken over the city. Oh my god, the things that happened!
Even the local Georgians, when they came back to Tkuarchal, said that the city must not be surrendered!
And then the rearguard went to the villages to loot. People from there started running to Tkuarchal, gathering together. A whole new frontlline formed! Not simply resistance groups, dozens of men – but a front! And in the end, this front cut off the Georgian army from reinforcements.
Damn it all…
If I could get at the men who started it all…
Alcohol got to Aslan. He gets up.
– Max, let’s go for a walk
A quiet, subdued landscape. A warm southern night. Rustling of leaves in the wind. Silence. Peace. It’s hard to believe that there could have been war here, that people could be killing and dying in such a place.
And looking at this heaven, you forget that in this land, every man has a rifle in his house. And every man is ready to take it up and defend their land again.
A strange and terrible combination of heavenly tranquility and readiness for a new war.
We do not need war. We just want to live. We do not attack them. We can work with them, trade with them. Why do they want to fight?
And they are still shouting: “We will come back! We will finish the job!”
Why kill us?
They want us to submit to their authority. And how can we, after such bloodshed?
Do you remember my father?
He did not come back from the war.
He was wounded. One of his eyes was shot out. And once he recovered, he went back to the frontlines.
Killed in the last days of the war. We were victorious! They were on the run! And his BMP hit a mine.
Father got lauched out of the hatch, flew fifty meters!
When carried him to the car, he was still alive. He kept repeating: “Just do not tell my wife Just do not tell my wife!” – In Russian, Abkhaz and Georgian, so that everyone there would understand.
That blast messed up everything inside him.
Aslan pours more wine and lights another cigarrette.
– Fine, my father – he continues – he fell in battle.
And what about our neighbor, an old woman, my grandmother’s friend?
They came to her house. Said – You’re Abkhaz, pay us money.
And she had no money.
And they saw she had golden teeth. They kicked them out with a rifle butt and took them. Those were “spoils of war” for them! The teeth of an old woman! What can we think of them after this?
A doctor came. Georgian.
Washed it all, put cotton on it. But there were no drugs, [due to blockade]. Infection set in… Why did she have to die so painfully?
You know, we were not too “nice and fluffy”, either. But that was afterward. We were “avenging”. And when revenge begins, it is difficult to stop.
They came here, shoot everything up, and fled.
But the local Georgians who stayed, sometimes had to pay for their evil …
You know, it is always easy to start a war when you’re somewhere in a warm office, far away from people … In the heavens … And here on earth, we pay for it all. Both the guilty and innocent. Those who shoot and kill, and those who only want this nightmare to end…
Now they say that we should be part of Georgia. What, then we forget that they shot down my brother’s medevac helicopter, [after agreeing to let it through]? Then we agree my dad died for nothing?
They shout that we can live like brothers. … But do brothers knock out old women’s teeth with rifle butts?
What to do with our pain?
And what to do with their pain? They also died!
We didn’t kick them out. We wanted to live in peace, as equals. Being equal was not good enough for them. How can we trust them now?
We now have our freedom. We now have a state. Not a gang of bandits, but a normal state. We built it, despite all the difficulties. We have not degraded to the level of savages. We grew up. … We can live by ourelves now. Why do we need them? So that they could rob and kill us once more?
If you want to live with us, let them recognize our state and develop normal relations, not keep threatening war!
Over the years they spent shouting that they would return and crush us, they could have built normal human relationships ten times over!
But they want to live here. And live alone, without us.
They are afraid.
They are afraid of revenge.
You know, at first, there was revenge. And a lot of good people, Georgians, had to leave.
This house has given to mom by a Georgian woman. She was scared and left. And our house, you know, burned down. She found mom and said, “Live here, Rimma. At least I know it will go to a good person. If I ever come back, we will figure it out. You have nowhere to live now. Live at my place…..”
Many of our guys turned to revenge.
We were hanging fliers, urging to stop it.
Then it went away. They understood they are taking revenge on the wrong people.
Do you know Timur?
Mom picked him up.
He’s Georgian. His parents are dead.
Mom said. “A child. How can we leave him?! I’ll take him instead of my dead ones.”
So she raised him.
It was difficult, as you remember.
One day, people came. Shouting, “Your husband and child were killed by Georgians! Why are you feeding a Georgian, when you have nothing to eat yourself?
Let’s sell him to the Chechens. They will send him to the mountains to watch their sheep. He doesn’t know any better. And no one will know: no documents, he is not listed anywhere! And you will get enough money for ten years! “
Mom chased them with a stick! Beat them! Later told me: “Aslan, if these people come again, you should beat them so hard, they end up in the hospital!”
But it was difficult after the war.
Russia closed the border. Mom went on the boat to Turkey, trading on the market there.
And then Turkey closed the border, too.
It was very difficult.
But even then, we survived …
So, now the war is over.
You know – by his voice, it’s clear that Alan is tired – they are asking that we let the refugees back in.
In Gal, we let almost all of them return. There’s only Georgians there. They have a newspaper in Georgian. In schools, they teach Georgian.
But if we let them come back here …
You know, revenge can begin again.
And then, there are the people whose houses were destroyed in the war. And they live in Georgian houses. How do they divide the house? Some would work it out. And what about others?
And then they will say: “Georgians are being oppressed!” – And use it as an excuse to invade us again …
I think that those that did not fight, let them come back. We do not want to persecute anyone.
But those who fought …
You know, even a couple of years ago, I met a man who was shooting at me back then… I would have killed him.
You know, I, too, was shooting at him …
But this is our land. Our country. Our State.
Here, every stone has been washed with our blood.
Here, every family had someone killed.
We won this war. We survived the blockade.
We have built a state.
We still live.
We do business.
We raise children here …
We will live in peace. And eventually, we will again become neighbors, not enemies.