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Second man dies after swimming Enguri from Abkhazia

23 September 2020
The Enguri Bridge, connecting Abkazia with Georgia's Samagrelo region. Photo: Dato Parulava/OC Media.

A second resident of Abkhazia’s eastern Gali District has died within a month after swimming across the River Enguri (Inguri) to receive medical treatment in Zugdidi.

The unnamed resident of the village of Otobaia (Bgoura/Khashta) died on Tuesday after successfully crossing the river earlier that day.

‘He fell ill as soon as they [he and his wife] crossed the river, falling to his knees several times on his way saying he was not well. The ambulance did not make it in time’, Georgian radio station Atinati quoted a relative as saying. ‘It’s heartbreaking that his relatives won’t be able to mourn him now.’ 

His body was taken to Kutaisi, in Georgia’s Imereti region, for postmortem examination.

Radio Tavisupleba reported that the victim was a Zugdidi-based IDP who was visiting his home village in Gali on the anniversary of his father’s death.

This is at least the second casualty within the last month as people have been forced to cross the river illicitly after the authorities in Abkhazia closed border checkpoints. The river runs along the line dividing territories controlled by the Abkhazian and Georgian authorities. 

On 26 August, the body of Otar Jobava, a 65-year-old resident of the village of Okumi (Uakum), in eastern Abkhazia, washed ashore in Orsantia, a village controlled by the Georgian authorities.

On 9 July, Russian soldiers detained over 25 ethnic Georgians attempting to swim across the Enguri to enter Abkhazia, according to Tbilisi-based rights group the Democracy Research Institute (DRI). 

Since March, residents of Gali have been either unable to return home or visit relatives or to sell hazelnuts and other products in Samegrelo and other Georgian regions.

Against Abkhazian roadblock and Georgian quarantine

Despite restricting movement across the Enguri, the Abkhazian authorities have opened one-way ‘humanitarian corridors’ to let residents of Gali and other regions of Abkhazia return from Georgian Government-controlled areas several times.

This has happened four times within the last six months, for several days in May, June, July, and in August. 

Russian soldiers, who control all of Abkhazia’s border checkpoints, have otherwise substantially limited movement since 27 February, the day after the first coronavirus case was confirmed in Georgia, and fully restricted it since 14 March. 

The full closure in mid-March was introduced two weeks before Abkhazian authorities closed access to Russia.

On 1 August, with 84 coronavirus cases confirmed, Abkhazia removed all restrictions for Russians entering through the Psou Checkpoint, while keeping the checkpoint on the River Enguri closed. 

[Read more on OC Media: Abkhazian health authorities fear ‘drowning’ in COVID-19 cases as thousands of tourists flow in]

As of today, the total number of confirmed cases in Abkhazia has surpassed 1,000.

Residents of Gali seeking to enter Georgia’s Samegrelo region by circumventing Abkhazian roadblocks — many of them small-time salespeople — have also faced quarantines instituted by the Georgian authorities.

Residents of Gali, many of whom harvest hazelnut crops in August, have often preferred to sell them across the Enguri rather than in Abkhazia due to the higher prices there.

‘Some are cheating; they take paracetamol or analgin an hour earlier if they have a [high] temperature, to make it drop’, doctor Otar Shengelia, who works at a Georgian field tent near the Enguri Bridge told local outlet Livepress.ge in August.

Georgian doctors check all travellers for their temperatures and record their recent health history and movement at the field tent. 

Georgian doctors have sent those coming from Abkhazia to quarantine or hospital if showing symptoms of coronavirus.

People testing positive for COVID-19 in Abkhazia who have sought treatment on Georgian-controlled territory are the only ones exempted from Abkhazia’s travel restrictions. 

As early as in mid-July, the Democracy Research Institute (DRI) warned of a ‘humanitarian crisis’ in Gali. 

DRI claimed that local residents, facing other problems caused by the restriction of movement since March, had been additionally deprived of their Georgian monthly allowances and pensions as they had been unable to personally renew their bank cards access codes in Zugdidi.

On 24 August, DRI also warned that residents of Gali with serious health problems, including oncology patients in need of chemotherapy, have begun avoiding seeking treatment due to Georgia’s two-week quarantine.

 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.

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