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A quarter of a century after the Abkhazian–Georgian war, the bodies of those killed are still being recovered.
In the centre of Sukhum/i, capital of breakaway Abkhazia, a giant stylised sword plunges into a grassy mound. Flanked by 14 flagpoles flying the territory’s vibrant red, green and white standard, this unusual sculpture is the centrepiece of a memorial — the Park of Glory — commemorating those lost during the Abkhazian-Georgian war in 1992–1993.
Four years ago, an international team of scientists exhumed 66 bodies from the Park of Glory. These were just some of ‘the missing’, the more than 2,000 Abkhazians and Georgians still unaccounted for 25 years after the internecine conflict began.
Guli Kichba has a weathered face that betrays the stresses of her occupation. Chairwoman of Mothers of Abkhazia for Peace and Social Justice, a non-governmental organisation based in Sukhum/i, Kichba works to support the families of the missing. ‘Nobody drops from the clouds’, she says philosophically in her office. ‘Apparently each of us has a mission. Working with the families of the deceased and the missing is a very difficult burden.’
Mothers of Abkhazia offers moral and psychological assistance to relatives of the missing. ‘These families come to us — they have nowhere else to go to talk about their pain’, Kichba says. The organisation works alongside a governmental commission on the missing — they have together created a database of the missing, and affected families are eligible for pensions and other benefits.
While much of Kichba’s work is practical, Mothers of Abkhazia appreciate the importance of symbolism. In the late 1990s, the organisation realised how deeply the ongoing mourning was impacting Abkhazian society. They began fundraising for the construction of the Park of Glory memorial to provide a focal point for commemoration, and during one charity event, Kichba had a revelation.
‘The mother of a war victim came up to me wrapped in a black headscarf and asked me to put her money into the donation box, because it was too hard for her to do it herself,’ she recalls. ‘Suddenly, I remembered the words of Dmitry Gulia, a famous Abkhazian poet. “The hero is not mourned with tears.” So I took off her headscarf. It started a domino effect: everyone was crying and taking off each other’s headscarves.’
‘Of course, the mourning did not stop suddenly on that day. But we had made the first move. We worked on this issue for many years, going around to villages, removing black headscarves from women and replacing them with colourful ones.’
Recovering the dead
Helena Stare looks unfazed. Staring out at potholed roads and war-damaged buildings from a café below the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)’s headquarters in central Sukhum/i, the recently-arrived Latvian wears a nonchalant expression. Stare is the ICRC’s new head of mission in Abkhazia, after a decorated career that has taken her across Africa and the Caribbean. ‘I spent a year in the remote jungle of Liberia’, she laughs. ‘Sukhum/i is paradise for me.’
The ICRC was the first international organisation on the ground in Abkhazia as war raged. 25 years later, it is still here. While the nature of its work has changed, with a reduced focus on providing medical care and food as the territory stabilised, the ICRC’s importance has not diminished.
In recent years, the ICRC’s primary objective in Abkhazia, Georgia, and nearby South Ossetia has been locating those missing from the conflicts that have ravaged this region. These efforts take both political and practical forms — the ICRC acts as a neutral intermediary between stakeholders on both sides of the disputed border, while also managing teams dedicated to locating and identifying human remains.
For several months each year, the ICRC excavates potential gravesites. Led by a forensic specialist, the ICRC in its neutral capacity deploys a team of experts to carry out the recovery, analysis, and management of human remains from the conflict. After bodies are exhumed, an exhaustive and complex process of identification begins with the assistance of various scientific disciplines and the application of international standards. If the remains are identified, they are returned to family members — an immensely sensitive process that the organisation undertakes with assistance from local stakeholders.
The emotional impact of these returns is evident in Stare’s voice. ‘The general perception is that once the conflict is over, everything is okay,’ she reflects. ‘That could not be further from the truth.’ On average, between 30–40 remains are identified and returned to families each year.
The impact of the missing is not limited to Abkhazia. Across the border, many Georgian families still mourn their absent sons and daughters. Indeed, the vast majority of missing individuals are Georgian, rather than Abkhazian (or South Ossetian). While ICRC forensic investigations have uncovered some remains within ‘Georgia proper’, most of the organisation’s excavation work occurs in Abkhazia.
The ICRC’s role in managing cross-border dialogue and repatriations is crucial, and made possible by its neutrality and the respect in which it is held by both sides of the conflict. ‘The ICRC has been providing invaluable assistance since the first days of the war,’ Kichba explains approvingly. ‘In the occupied part, where we did not have access, the ICRC was conducting active work.’
In the immediate post-war period, there was even considerable cooperation between civil society stakeholders on both sides of the border. ‘We agreed we had to trust each other,’ explained Vladimir Doborjginidze of Molodini, Georgia’s Mothers of Abkhazia equivalent, to The Clarion in 2015. ‘We were not enemies, just parents, equals in our grief.’
While today most cross-border engagement takes place via the ICRC, a degree of mutual understanding remains. At the Missing Persons Museum in Tbilisi, a large banner lists the missing Abkhazians and Georgians. Molodini’s Nineli Andriadze has previously explained this rare display of solidarity: ‘Their parents are waiting as well’.
While the ICRC may have been in Abkhazia for a quarter of a century, fresh conflicts across the globe place budgetary pressures on its operations. ‘We can’t stay here forever,’ Stare admits. The ICRC has begun local capacity building to ensure that the search for the missing will go on, if and when the organisation departs Sukhum/i. Students are being trained in forensic anthropology and other skills. Despite the concerted efforts undertaken by the ICRC and the governments and community groups on both sides of the border, the number of missing people remains agonisingly high.
‘Our people keep wondering when this process will be finished,’ says Kichba. The Mothers of Abkhazia chairwoman blames the Georgian authorities, who — she says — have not handed over maps showing burial locations. Even with more information, it is probable that a number of missing individuals will remain unlocated or unidentified in another 25 years’ time.
Kichba knows the pain only too well. ‘It is wrong to equate families of missing persons to the families of the deceased’, she suggests. ‘Having a missing family member is double the grief. Many mothers and fathers died because they could not properly mourn for their children. Including my husband.’
‘Every night before bed’, she continues tearfully, ‘he approached our son’s picture and said, “forgive me, baby, that I still cannot find you”. Four years ago, our son was found among the bodies buried in the Park of Glory.’
With additional reporting from Asta Zhiba. All place names and terminology used in this article are the words of the author alone, and may not necessarily reflect the views of OC Media’s editorial board. For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.