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Following The Tracks Of The 'Disappeared' on Georgia's Abkhaz Border

Maia Matua's brother disappeared in 1993. "I'm constantly waiting for him to return," she says.
Maia Matua's brother disappeared in 1993. "I'm constantly waiting for him to return," she says.
ZUGDIDI, Georgia -- Our car stops at a checkpoint. "Your documents!" a guard barks at us. "Where are you going? Purpose of visit?"

"We're going to see the Gogokhias," we say. He lets us through.

We're in Pakhulani, a village in Georgia's Tsalenjikha district -- and the last town before the administrative border with breakaway Abkhazia.

We're not planning to cross into Abkhazia -- indeed, we couldn't -- but the guard's questions are meant as a security check, to ensure we intend to stay on the proper side.

Since the war in 2008, this region has been under heavy watch. But for many of its residents, its troubled history stretches back even further, to the Abkhaz war of independence in the early 1990s.

Nazo Gogokhia is still searching for her son. "You raise a son for 25 years, and then he disappears without a trace."
That conflict led to the killing of hundreds of ethnic Georgians, the mass expulsion of thousands more, and resulted in hundreds of "missing persons" cases on both sides of the border.

It's this issue that brings us to a house surrounded by a fence and a green lawn. There we meet Nazo Gogokhia, who tells us how her son was among those who vanished.

"You raise a son for 25 years, and then he disappears without a trace," she says. "It's very hard for a mother. His name was Besik. The last time anyone saw him, he was sitting on a tank. They were driving down a road, when they were fired upon. This was on the road to Sukhumi," the Abkhaz capital.

As the world marks the International Day of the Disappeared on August 30, this tiny region along the Abkhaz-Georgian administrative border remains fraught with anxiety over the fate of its missing persons.

Kakha Khasaia heads the office of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Zugdidi, near the de facto Abkhaz border. He says the Abkhaz conflict resulted in 1,800 missing-person cases, with victims on both sides. The ICRC has since helped to mediate contacts between Abkhaz and Georgians to track down information about the disappeared. But it is slow work, with few happy endings.

Gogokhia says she will never believe that her son is no longer alive. But she says she feels helpless to search for him in the wake of the more recent war, when increased checkpoints have made it nearly impossible for cross back and forth between Abkhazia and Georgia.

"I don't know how to look for him. I can't enter there," she says, pointing toward the edge of the village, where a guard tower stands, denoting the administrative border with Abkhazia. She doesn't have anyone to talk to on this side of the border, either.

"I don't know who to share my pain with. I don't know who might have some answers. Nobody has ever paid attention to us. You're the first of this kind that I see," she says.

'Three Guys Came And Took Him'

We found Maia Matua in the village of Bashi in Zugdidi district. After the war in the 1990s, she and her family moved here from Gali -- an Abkhaz district traditionally dominated by Mingrelians. She thinks back to the year 1993, and remembers her brother.

"He left the house on September 21," she says. "Three guys came and took him from home to go to Sukhumi, to fight."

That was just before Sukhumi fell to Abkhaz rebels in a fierce battle that left as many as 1,000 people dead. Matua's brother never returned.

"I'm waiting constantly for him to return," she says. "When I see a car pull up, I have this hope that my brother will get out. I don't know, but I think he's alive."

Kakha Khasaia, head of the Zugdidi office of the International Committee of the Red Cross
Another woman, Nana Kobalia, also has a missing brother. "What was his name?" I ask, before awkwardly correcting my question: "What is his name?"

"Zaza," says Nana, and proceeds with her story. "It was October 1993. We were over here in Samegrelo" -- in Georgia -- "and only my brother and father remained over there, in Gali. My brother needed to go to the water mill."

Their father warned him not to go, but Nana says her brother went anyway. "The woman who worked at the water mill told us that a car came, with some guys inside. They ordered my brother to go with them, to pick mandarins. She said my brother didn't want to go, but they forced him into the car and drove away."

By that time, Nana had already left Abkhazia -- and believed her family would survive the conflict. As she crossed the Enguri bridge from Gali to Samegrelo, she described herself as happy. "At least I knew where my family and my two brothers were."

She has never stopped looking for Zaza.

"We've tried so hard, but it hasn't come to anything," she says. "Back then it was really hard to get gasoline, but we still managed to get it in order to drive regularly to Tkvarcheli [in Abkhazia]. We had found out that the owner of the car that took my brother was from there. We looked for my brother everywhere, but with no result."

Many of the disappeared are presumed dead. But without definite information, victims' families can languish for years with no sense of closure.

Khasaia of the ICRC says it's a situation that can have a debilitating effect on survivors. His organization works together with young psychologists and doctors to help provide assistance to family members of the disappeared.

Nino Janashia, who heads the efforts, says they try to answer all the questions people bring to them. But she admits that no one has an answer to the most burning question: "Where is my relative?"

Nona Kobalia, a journalist and humanitarian worker engaged in missing-persons issues, says many people are involved in finding the answer to this question -- but not all with charitable intent.

"There are many charlatans who have tried to make money from the suffering of others," she says. "When a mother is searching for her son, she's prepared to do anything. International organizations haven't done much. Or maybe they couldn't."

Years go by. People patiently -- or stubbornly -- wait for their disappeared relatives to return. But is there reason to hope?

Khasaia says he knows of one case where a missing person was located and returned to his family. "We began working on one case in 2003, and in 2009 we finally found him. He was alive and in good health, living in Ukraine," he says. "So there's a point in waiting and searching. There really is."