"I was a killer and also a victim. I revenged and was the target of revenge.... Let us gather strength and remember those who perished for Georgia's unity. Fighters, let us drink for the memory of those who died from the bullets that we fired."
With those words, former Georgian Defense Minister Gia Qarqarashvili marked the 17th anniversary on September 27 of the day that Georgians remember as Sukhumi's downfall. (In the self-proclaimed Republic of Abkhazia, by contrast, this day is marked as Sukhumi's liberation from Georgian forces.)
Qarqarashvili, 43, commanded Georgian forces during the war in Abkhazia and is now retired and confined to a wheelchair.
His surprising sentiment -- that the bloody war of 1992-93 resulting in some 16,000 deaths was a tragedy for all, and that Abkhaz victims also deserve respect and remembrance -- was echoed in the statements of other public figures and politicians who gathered in Tbilisi's Victory Park to mark the occasion.
Qarqarashvili's words are particularly poignant in light of the fact that in Abkhazia he is bitterly remembered for a controversial statement -- made in 1992 -- that if it came to it, 100,000 Georgians would die destroying all 97,000 ethnic Abkhaz.
Some in Georgia have claimed that this televised statement was misinterpreted or taken out of its original context. But for the Abkhaz, Qarqarashvili came to epitomize Georgian aggression and deadly threats.
"We are all victims of the catastrophe that occurred back then," said Kakha Shartava, the leader of the opposition National Forum whose father was executed by the Abkhaz shortly before the fall of Sukhumi. "As time goes by, the Georgians and the Abkhaz will understand this with increasing clarity. Otherwise, there will be no more Abkhaz or Georgians left on this earth."
In a sermon on September 27, Georgian Orthodox Church head Patriarch Ilia II -- a popular and influential figure -- also asserted: "Some forces wish to divide us, so that they can conquer us. Let us comprehend this fact and analyze what this will entail for the Abkhaz people. The Georgians and the Abkhaz should forgive one another. We should approach one another and commiserate. This is our salvation."
For an outsider, these statements might have a bit of a cliched feel -- evoking declarations about peace and reconciliation that are commonplace in many postconflict settings but rarely entail any real consequences. But for those who are familiar with the Georgian context, these are messages of great symbolic significance.
The 1992-93 war remains an intensely emotional issue for many Georgians, and so far there has been little, if any, public effort to question the actions that Georgians took in those times. In this strongly nationalistic setting, muscular and, at times, bellicose slogans like "We will return" have proved to be much more popular than toasts to the memory of those who fought for Abkhazia's separation from Georgia.
Whether this change will entail real transformation of the ways in which most Georgians think about the conflict -- or whether it will remain on the level of symbols and toasts -- is yet to be seen. But the fact remains that the 17th anniversary of the war brought about a noteworthy change in public statements that were heard in Tbilisi.
-- Salome AsatianiMORE photos from the September 27 ceremony: