Saturday, 15 October 2011

Labours of Love: Childhood and Nostalgia in Abkhazia

The status of Abkhazia is a central issue of the Georgian–Abkhazian conflict. The wider region formed part of the Soviet Union until 1991. As the Soviet Union began to disintegrate towards the end of the 1980s, ethnic tensions grew between Abkhaz and Georgians over Georgia's moves towards independence. This led to the 1992–1993 War in Abkhazia that resulted in a Georgian military defeat, de facto independence of Abkhazia and the mass exodus and ethnic cleansing of the Georgian population from Abkhazia. In spite of the 1994 ceasefire agreement and years of negotiations, the status dispute has not been resolved, and despite the long-term presence of a United Nations monitoring force and a Russian-dominated CIS peacekeeping operation, the conflict has flared up on several occasions. In August 2008, the sides again fought during the South Ossetia War, which was followed by the formal recognition of Abkhazia by Russia, the annulment of the 1994 cease fire agreement and the termination of the UN and CIS missions

As with South Ossetia, literature for this barely recognised state is thin on the ground, and so I have chosen a collection of short stories entitled “The Thirteenth Labour of Hercules” by Fazil Iskander – arguably the most famous Abkhaz writer – which are largely childhood recollections of the post-WW2 era, although some are more contemporary.

The stories range over a great deal of territory--growing up, going to school, rembrances of eccentric characters from the Abkhazia of Iskander's youth. Like Bulgakov's satires, however, Iskander's stories also have a more political substrata. Several stories subtly aim their arrows at the Soviet regime. In one story, Forbidden Fruit, a boy who snitches on his sister for eating pork is punished for his actions. In another, One Day in Summer, the story a German tourist tells our narrator about his experiences under the Nazis seems a critique of Soviet responses to Stalin. In still another, Old Crooked Arm, an eccentric outwits both his friends and the Soviet state.

All in all these form an enjoyable collection of stories that build up a nostalgic - though unsentimental – picture of modern Abkhazia, although it is a shame that a more recent literary work dealing with contemporary Abkhazia is not available (at least not in English…).

From here I make my way back to another country racked by border wars in recent years: Armenia (I have already visited neighbouring Azerbaijan and the disputed area the two countries have warred over, Nagorno-Karabakh).

As an EU citizen I need to buy a visa first. You can buy a visa when you arrive at any entry point to Armenia. A 21-day visa costs 3,000 dram (about $8/EUR6). However, border guards do accept other currencies but they will not give you a good exchange rate and often won’t take high value notes, so I go for the simpler option of ordering the visa online.

There is no direct transport from Abkhazia to Armenia, so I retrace my steps back to Tbilisi in Georgia, via jeeps (a different one for each side of the border) to Zugdidi, then overnight train to Tbilisi.

In Tbilisi I am able to get one of two daily Armavia Airlines flights from Tbilisi airport to Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, leaving at 19.15 and arriving a mere 45 minutes later, for $72 (economy). "Zvartnots " International airport is 10km north of Yerevan proper, though a taxi takes only 15 minutes at a cost of around $6.

I shall be staying in Armenia courtesy of "Armenia: Portraits of Survival and Hope", an account by Americans Donald E Miller & Lorna Touryan Miller of Armenia’s tribulations through earthquake and war during the 1980s, 1990s and into the 21st century.

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