Before this journey, our experience with the disputed regions in the Caucasus – Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh – amounted to a few news articles and flashpoint body-count news tickers drifting across the bottom of our television screens.
Something bad had happened, people had died, but we never truly appreciated or understood the details.
Laundry lists of personal concerns and modern media’s facile compartmentalization of just about everything made it easy for us to become desensitized and stow it all away. These were simply areas of conflict someplace far away.
Although we didn't venture into Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or Nagorno-Karabakh, we did meet some people displaced and affected by the disputes. For us, their personal tales conveyed a human face to areas that previously only amounted to just another set of flashpoints halfway around the globe.
The only thing everyone seems to agree about Abkhazia is that it is a beautiful place – the Caucasus Mountains on its one side and the Black Sea on the other. After that, agreement yields to chaos; nothing is black and white about the war, who started it and how it might someday be resolved. The reality is that an estimated 200,000-300,000 refugees from Abkhazia are now spread throughout Georgia. We met just a few.
Abkhazian Refugees at Hotel Telavi
Our first encounter with Abkhazia occurred in the opposite corner of Georgia, in the Eastern region of Kakheti. In search of great views of Telavi and the surrounding countryside, we found ourselves climbing the crumbling steps of the Hotel Telavi, a once-desired address now inhabited by Abkhazian refugees driven from their homes more than ten years ago.
Common rooms on the ground floor are gutted and scattered with trash and rusted Brezhnev-era remains. Extended families are squeezed into old, decaying Soviet hotel rooms. Children have turned the grand ballroom into a velodrome and cycle the long hours of uncertain days away while their parents hang out of the windows, drawing smoke from cheap cigarettes as they watch time drift by. Uncertainty seems certain here; no one knows when or if he’ll ever be able to return home.
So Close, Yet So Far
We met Lena after enjoying an impromptu feast at the Zugdidi market. She was forced to flee her home in Sukhumi (regional capital of Abkhazia) 15 years ago and subsequently settled in nearby Zugdidi. Tears welled up in Lena's eyes as she drifted into the past and described her beautiful home and her former life. She eventually grew silent and her eyes dropped as she returned to the reality of the present. Her hope to one day return home was also waning. All we could do was nod empathetically.
A friend in Tbilisi told us about how she used to spend summers as a child at her grandfather’s house in Sukhumi. After the war, borders were closed and her family could obviously no longer take advantage of the summer home.
When phone lines were reconnected a few years ago, our friend dialed the phone number of her old summer home out of curiosity. A man answered the phone and explained that he was a Chechen and now living in the house. He wanted to know whether there was a car that went with the house. He’d found some car parts in the garage and wanted to take full advantage of all the house had to offer.
To reassure our friend, he said: “Don't worry. I'm taking good care of the house. If politics change, it will be in good condition for when you return. It's a nice house.”
In Azerbaijan, it would be an understatement to say that feelings run strong regarding Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. The continual pain and anger from this conflict finds expression in so many – often bizarre – ways, from the moment you enter the country until the moment you leave.
Offending Guidebooks – Rip Out the Maps!
One of the teams from the Mongol Rally that we met in Uzbekistan shared an apt tale of the Azerbaijani attitude towards this disputed territory. The drivers carried a Lonely Planet Caucasus guidebook with them. The Lonely Planet's characterization of Nagorno-Karabakh as distinctly separate from Azerbaijan apparently did not fit with the Azerbaijani government’s view. As they entered Azerbaijan from the border with Georgia, the Azerbaijani guards confiscated the book, citing the offending map and characterization of Nagorno-Karabakh as an entity separate from Azerbaijan. After considerable discussion, the guards showed their generosity by allowing the Mongol Rally team to continue their journey into Azerbaijan.
We also had our guidebook and map examined by several Azerbaijanis in Baku, Shaki and Lahic. Each paid special attention to how Nagorno-Karabakh was depicted. Fortunately for us, our Trailblazer guidebook and its especially pro-Azerbaijani view (it was, after all, primarily a guidebook for Azerbaijan) and the Avis map (given to us by the Azerbaijani embassy in Tbilisi) both passed the test. We were kindly allowed to keep our materials and were not forced to travel blindly.
Offending Photos – Hide Them!
Just when we thought we were in the clear as we departed Azerbaijan, one of the border guards pulled us aside. The Armenian visas in our passports drew his ire. Our exit from Azerbaijan included 45 minutes of questioning regarding our activities in Armenia. We assured him that we hadn't visited Nagorno-Karabakh. He insisted that we show our photos on our laptops to prove we were never there. Impeccable logic, eh? Given his tone, we worried that he would force us to delete all photos from Armenia as punishment for visiting the offending country. Luckily, we received a brief lecture instead about Armenian-Azerbaijani relations and were allowed to board the ferry to Turkmenistan.
Although our engagement with these disputed regions was relatively superficial, our encounters with refugees and others affected lend gravity to the conflict and humanity to those involved. This also demonstrates another reason why we choose to travel the way we do. When a place has a face, desensitization begins to wear off. Human connections make these places more difficult to dismiss as “some war, some place, and some people halfway around the world.”