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The War For Abkhazia: 25 Years Later
August 23, 2017 13:31 GMT
In August 1992, simmering ethnic tensions in Georgia's Abkhazia region exploded into a 13-month war which ended in a military victory for Abkhaz separatists but a political stalemate that continues today.
The Abkhaz war was one of most brutal and consequential conflicts sparked by the breakup of the U.S.S.R. For the separatists (pictured), it was a matter of restoring Abkhaz identity. For the Georgians, it was about stopping their country from being cut into pieces.
A resort in Abkhazia in 1973. The region's coastline was the favored holiday spot for the Soviet elite but, as the U.S.S.R. headed towards collapse, this jewel of the Georgian coast began to splinter along ethnic lines.
Elderly Abkhaz men with a visiting professor in the 1980s. Under Soviet rule, Abkhazia was initially a full-fledged republic, but in 1931 it was incorporated into Soviet Georgia by Josef Stalin. When this photo was taken, ethnic Abkhaz made up less than 18 percent of Abkhazia's population.
Soviet troops during a brutal crackdown on Georgian independence protesters in Tbilisi in 1989. As Georgian calls for independence from the U.S.S.R were growing louder, Abkhaz began to petition for their own republic inside the Soviet Union.
Russian tourists fleeing Abkhazia's resorts in mid-August 1992 as fighting broke out. With a hard-line separatist leader in power in Abkhazia, armored columns from independent Georgia rolled into Abkhazia in order to restore Tbilisi's authority.
Abkhaz fighters near the highway to Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia. After a Georgian military commander announced he would take "no prisoners" and, later, a building storing cultural artifacts representing Abkhazia's heritage was gutted by fire, many Abkhaz saw the battle with Georgian forces as a fight for the survival of their people.
Georgian troops in Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia. Georgian control of the city was to be short-lived as bands of “volunteers,” including Chechens linked to Islamist terrorist groups, slipped through the mountains to link up with the beleaguered Abkhaz.
Unidentified fighters walk by a casualty of house-to-house fighting in Sukhumi. While the Abkhaz were strengthened by Russian troops and a motley array of "mountain people," the Georgian side was bolstered by "emptying the jails." According to a Human Rights Watch
, Georgian criminals were released from prison in return for joining the fight in Abkhazia.
A Russian paratrooper in Abkhazia during the conflict. Russia’s involvement was a complex one. Moscow publicly backed the Georgian cause, while on the ground many Russian commanders sided with the Abkhaz. According to
, as Russian jets bombed Georgian positions in Sukhumi, other Russian units were supplying Georgian troops with weapons.
A civilian outside his bullet-pocked home. As the fighting dragged into winter, bands of gunmen prowled rural Abkhazia, terrorizing villages in the now lawless region.
A scene inside the Abkhaz "press center" during the conflict. With the world's eyes on the wars in the former Yugoslavia, Abkhazia was covered by only a handful of mostly Russian journalists, and the war went virtually unnoticed in the western world.
Abkhaz fighters retreat shortly before a Russian-brokered cease-fire was declared.
Abkhaz fighters in Sukhumi. After the July 1993 cease-fire many Georgians, assuming the conflict was over, returned to their homes. Then, in mid-September, Abkhaz fighters broke the cease-fire and attacked the capital.
Abkhaz fighters during the attack on Sukhumi. Shortly after taking this picture, Russian photojournalist Andrei Solovyov (who took five of the other photos in this gallery) was shot dead by a sniper.
After taking Sukhumi, Abkhaz forces and their allies fanned out through the city, rounding up ethnic Georgians. The
that followed helped tip international opinion in Georgia's favor.
Georgian refugees fleeing through the mountains on October 5, 1993. As Abkhaz forces pushed east through the rest of Abkhazia, more than 200,000 ethnic Georgians were driven from their homes.
Abkhaz look at the wreckage of the Inguri Bridge. By the end of the war, in September 1993, ethnic Georgians had been killed or driven out of the region and the Inguri River had become the de facto border between Abkhazia and Georgia proper.
Abkhaz celebrate on their "independence day" in 2014. Since the war, Abkhazia has been shunned by the international community. But in 2008, shortly after the Russia-Georgia war, Russia formally recognized Abkhazia. Then-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili responded that Abkhazia is "not an internal Georgian problem, or a question of Georgia and Russia. This is now a question of Russia and the rest of the civilized world."
A memorial in Abkhazia to the 1992-1993 war. With the western world continuing to view the rebel statelet as a part of Georgia, Abkhazia is now deeply reliant on Russia, with most of its income coming from Russian tourism or Kremlin handouts.
A Russian tourist in the Abkhaz mountains. Abkhazia's current attitude towards Russia is one of gratitude for their assistance and recognition, but also one of wariness. One hotelier told RFE/RL in 2014 "If Russia tries another Crimea here they'll end up with another Chechnya."
Amos Chapple is a New Zealand photojournalist with a particular interest in the former U.S.S.R.
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