Fear and uncertainty: The life of Georgians in Gali

Edition: Fear

A half a mile.   

That is the distance that separates ethnic Georgians living in breakaway Abkhazia from Georgian-controlled territory. It was the distance separating Badri*, 34, from his wife and children over the summer. The distance keeping Nika*, 23, from his master's degree studies. 

Roughly a half a mile -- 870 meters -- is the length of the Enguri Bridge, the only legal crossing point into Georgian-controlled territory. For three months this year, it became a symbol of the insecurities that undermine the lives of an estimated 30,000-40,000 people every day.

The bridge marks the dividing line between Georgian and Abkhaz – geographically close to the meandering line of the Enguri River – that appeared following the 1992-1993 Georgian-Abkhaz war. 
During the height of the fighting, Georgians fled to other parts of the country for safety. 

When the fighting ended in 1993, many returned to their homes in Gali district. While they currently make up the majority in the district, they live a life of fear and uncertainty, in part due to the Enguri Bridge. 
An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 ethnic Georgians live in Gali, a district under Abkhaz control.
Access to the Enguri Bridge, the only legal crossing point into Georgian-controlled territory, is tightly controlled by the Abkhaz authorities. It has been closed twice over the past several months.

For the Georgians living in Gali, that bridge represents a path to schools, hospitals and family. They cross for cheaper groceries and better quality services, for weddings and funerals. People cross the dividing line every day for different reasons.

And for three months, access to the crossing point was closed.

Families were divided. Students struggled to make it to university. Even a simple act like going to a concert became impossible.

While the crossing point is currently open, the three month restriction underscored the constant vulnerability of ethnic Georgians living in Abkhazia.  

"It was a terrible experience to describe. In July when Gali pupils had national exams, parents paid [bribes of] 5,000 RUB ($77), some 10,000 ($155) to cross. I do not want to go back [to Gali] if such practice continuous. We are in prison. It is impossible to live in such conditions," Nika says. 

There are the daily injustices, like not being able to study Georgian at schools in Gali. And then there are the fundamental security issues, like not being able to register property, vote or trust that the police will help when you need them. 

"Unfortunately, you are not big enough." It was a joke to the border guard, but it meant that the middle aged Georgian man (18-65 years) trying to cross the Enguri would not be allowed to go. Or at least, would not be allowed to pass unless he paid a bribe. 

Badri faced that choice regularly over the summer, after his children fell ill. Hospitals in Gali lack supplies and modern expertise, so his wife crossed the Enguri to take them to a better hospital in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. The Abkhaz authorities closed the Enguri crossing in July, in response to protests in Tbilisi, and Badri was stuck. 

For more than three months male residents of Gali were prevented from crossing the separation line. Restrictions were lifted on October 2. However, the experience left Gali’s population afraid and frustrated. 

Over the past year, the Abkhaz authorities have closed the crossing point twice. Ethnic Georgians living in Gali have little recourse when it happens: they can try to pay bribes or they can stay home. 

“In order to visit my ill children and wife, who were in a hospital in Tbilisi I had to pay 5, 000 RUB ($ 77) in total. I was paying 1, 000 RUB ($15) every time I crossed.. .Is this a life? I nearly went crazy, my children were on artificial lungs and I couldn’t visit them,” Badri says. 

Even the $15 bribe was uncertain. Sometimes border guards take them, sometimes they do not. The amount is subject to change: for Nika, it was $46 to cross so he could secure his place in a master's degree program. 

“I paid 2, 000 RUB ($ 30) the second time. Later I had to write a statement to the [Georgian Education] Ministry to get financing to pay tuition and I had to cross Enguri Bridge a third time and paid 2, 000 RUB again," he says.

The decision to close the crossing point was not an anomaly: the Abkhaz authorities closed it in January, under the pretext that there was an influenza outbreak on Georgian-controlled territory.
Georgians living in Gali says they have become "prisoners" in their own homes due to a steady flow of decisions by Abkhaz authorities that restrict their movements.

The closure was so disruptive for Gali residents that they held a rare protest outside of the administration building in the region. The demonstration prompted the Abkhaz public defender to speak up on their behalf. Ombudsman Asida Shakril urged the Abkhaz authorities to take into consideration the needs of the communities in Gali. 

But locals see little indication the Abkhaz government is interested in improving their situation. 

Instead, they see a policy aimed at forcing them to abandon their homes in Gali. In 2008, when Russia recognized Abkhaz independence, it became obligatory to get an Abkhaz passport or residency card. Prior to that, Soviet passports and, for minors, birth certificates were mainly used. 

For Gali residents, that meant a special form, Form No 9, which had to be renewed every month or two. In some rare cases, it was approved for a six month term. Locals had to have this document to cross into Georgian-controlled territory. 

Obtaining residency – a status legally created for foreigners but is applied to ethnic Georgians despite the fact that Gali is their home – is incredibly difficult. 

Nani*, 58, lives in Lekukhona, a village in Gali. She has been waiting for her residence permit for two years. 

Even once Nani and her family receive their residency permits, they will not have even basic rights in Gali. For instance, they will not have the right to buy a house or purchase property. They will not be able to vote. 

“I, with my three family members, were standing in a queue from the morning till the night for more than two weeks to apply for a residence permit... what is happening here is a nightmare, which does not have an end and is getting worse and worse," she says. 

Ethnic Georgians wait at the police department in Gali to receive their residence permits. The process is long and uncertain.

Respondents names were changed to protect their identities.

"Chai Khana" is not publishing the author's name out of security concerns.
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