‘Before Ukraine had Buddha, Georgia had Abkhazia’ | News

Georgia Tbilisi and Tskaltubo – In 1993, Venera Meshveliani was one of more than 300 people who were held hostage by Russian soldiers for about three weeks in Abkhazia, a breakaway region in northwest Georgia bordering Russia.

“I will never forget the sound of soldiers stamping on and the foul, damp smell of the school building where we were being held hostage. Everything I witnessed and experienced there was genocide,” said Meshwe, an 86-year-old ethnic Georgian Liani said. Akhaldaba village from Abkhazia.

Most countries recognize Abkhazia as Georgian land, but Russia and some of its allies consider the territory their own.

“Every night, they would step on us to humiliate us. Then they would take young girls outside and rape them,” Meshvelyani told her one-bedroom apartment in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi. Al Jazeera.

People stand near an apartment building housing internally displaced Georgians from Abkhazia, Tskaltubo, Georgia, July 21, 2022 [Valeria Mongelli/Al Jazeera]

“Many of the young girls who were raped were also my students. Before the war, I was a math teacher in their village. How could I forget the atrocities they had to go through?” she said, tearing up.

“There was a girl in fifth grade, bleeding all over, grabbing my feet and asking if I was worth living. Just as I was trying to convince her to get through, another young girl was taken back to the school building after being raped, watching Up she would pass out from all the trauma.

“She begged for water, a small but serious looking Russian soldier whose face I still remember, climbing up the windowpane above the young girl, urinating into her mouth and saying: ‘This is your water. This is Georgia. People deserve it. More than 30 years later, these criminals have not been prosecuted.”

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Georgia’s conflict with Abkhazia intensified, and Abkhazians were keen to establish autonomy from Georgia and protect their identity and culture.

“Before the war, everything was very peaceful in our region. Our village, Akhaldhaba, is really beautiful, we are all rich, but also hardworking. But there are people in Abkhazia who are pro-Russian and they Start sowing the seeds of hostility in Georgia,” Meshvelliani said.

The Kremlin backed Abkhazia’s demands, and tensions soared to become the deadliest conflict in the post-Soviet era, which began in August 1992 and lasted about a year between Georgians in Abkhazia and separatist Abkhazia. between this and the Russian army.

According to an unpublished report from the Georgia Prosecutor’s Office, the clashes killed some 5,738 people.

More than 200,000 people were displaced, most of them Georgians, who continue to live outside the area.

Abkhazia's forgotten war crimes
Venera Meshveliani flips through her diary of war crimes she witnessed during the 1992-1993 Abkhaz war [Valeria Mongelli/Al Jazeera]

Abkhazia declared independence from Georgia in 1999, but Tbilisi has yet to recognize Abkhazia and friction continues.

Moscow recognized Abkhazia’s independence after the Georgia-Russia war in 2008 and signed an agreement with Abkhazia to control its borders in 2014.

But Meshveliani said geopolitical tensions were blocking a path that could address the war crimes of the early 1990s.

“My husband was killed right in front of my eyes. I still remember in a house on the edge of my village, the owners of the house were killed and their heads chopped off and placed on the dining table. Shouldn’t such a murderous monster be punished ?” she said.

Abkhazia's forgotten war crimes
A photo shows Venera Meshveliani’s husband at their home in Tbilisi, Georgia, on July 24, 2022. Meshveliani, her husband was killed right before her eyes [Valeria Mongelli/Al Jazeera]

‘The world has not yet called these crimes genocide’

According to Malkhaz Pataraia, the head of the Abkhaz parliament of the Tbilisi platform, the group advocates for Georgians displaced from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, another disputed area that Georgia considers its territory, Georgia The government did not correctly identify the “aggressors” and the West.

“Our government has always been wary of the Kremlin, but right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West also believed that the diplomatic dialogue would cooperate with the Kremlin. This delayed harsh punishment of perpetrators of war crimes,” said Abkhazia, also from Abkhazia. Pataraja, an internally displaced ethnic Georgian, told Al Jazeera.

While the UN Observer Mission in Georgia, Human Rights Watch and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have dismissed the crimes that ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia have had to face as “ethnic cleansing,” Patalaya is dismayed that The world does not call these crimes genocide.

Abkhazia's forgotten war crimes
Malkhaz Pataria, 59, head of the Abkhaz parliament in Tbilisi, defends Abkhaz victims every day [Valeria Mongelli/Al Jazeera]

“In three OSCE documents, the war crimes that took place in Abkhazia are called ethnic cleansing. As a lawyer, I can tell you that phrases like ‘ethnic cleansing’ are only politically correct terms, Because they have no normative basis,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Only genocide has a normative basis because there are international conventions for victims of genocide and guarantees of justice for victims of war crimes.

“But after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a lot of things have changed in the world. People have given up on politically correct motives, they have started naming things correctly. So this may lead the world to correctly see what happened in Abkhazia things,” he said.

While Georgia has launched two state investigations to bring justice to the victims of war crimes from Abkhazia, Georgian government officials claimed Moscow was not cooperating and terminated the case.

This left many, like Mkshinvalli, feeling that their trauma was doomed to be forgotten.

Abkhazia's forgotten war crimes
Children ride bicycles past a police checkpoint in Kvemo Akhalsopeli on the border between Georgia and South Ossetia on July 22, 2022 [Valeria Mongelli/Al Jazeera]

“It really breaks my heart that we (Georgians) have been neglected to this day. I encourage every IDP to write and speak out about what they have been through, as this is the only way our perpetrators will be prosecuted, “Mkshinevali said she showed reporters a diary in which she recorded everything she went through.

In the former Soviet spa town of Tskartubo, more than 190 kilometers (118 miles) from Tbilisi, Suliko, 68, said: “I came to Tskaltubo in September 1993. [Abkhazian] The village is horrible. I had to flee. Our entire village was surrounded for three days, but we managed to escape with our children.

“My uncle was disabled and was burned alive in his house. My mother also died in this war, she has no grave…I don’t want to talk about this anymore. 30 years on and nothing for us Change.”

Abkhazia's forgotten war crimes
Suliko, from Al-Akhaldaba, Abkhazia, says the plight of internally displaced persons has remained the same for 30 years [Valeria Mongelli/Al Jazeera]

Nodar Gurchiani, 77, was with the army fighting Russian soldiers in the Abkhaz war.

“Most of us have been living in poor living conditions over the years. I feel like a guest in this settlement in my own country,” he said.

Al Jazeera reached out to Georgia’s current prime minister, Irakli Garibashvili, for comment, but had not received a response by press time.

Abkhazia's forgotten war crimes
Nodar Gurchiani, 77, sits with other internally displaced Georgians from Abkhazia in Tskaltubo, Georgia, on July 21, 2022 [Valeria Mongelli/Al Jazeera]

As the 30th anniversary of the conflict erupted on August 14, Tamar Sautieva, a social worker who fled Abkhazia at the age of three, called for equality in wider Georgian society.

She is currently living with her family in an IDP settlement in Tbilisi.

Abkhazia's forgotten war crimes
Social worker Tamar Sautieva, 32, calls for equality for IDPs [Valeria Mongelli/Al Jazeera]

“When I first came to Tbilisi, the school refused to accept us because we were internally displaced [Internally Displaced People]. The stigma against us still exists. Some also think that the government is doing us a favor by providing us with housing facilities and that we are a burden to society,” she told Al Jazeera.

“It sometimes feels like we are refugees in our own country,” said Tamar Tolordava, 31, an assistant professor at Elijah University in Georgia. “As young internally displaced persons, we are Fight for our rights and remove stigma. I hope that with what has happened in Ukraine, our own society will wake up and acknowledge our trauma.”

Members of the Abkhaz parliament and other NGOs will launch a campaign in central Tbilisi on August 7 to raise awareness of this sense of discrimination and to call for the identification of those behind the Abkhaz war crimes. People are brought to justice.

Abkhazia's forgotten war crimes
Tamar Tolordava, 31, an internally displaced Georgian from Abkhazia, says the world is waking up to Russia’s war crimes as the conflict in Ukraine worsens [Valeria Mongelli/Al Jazeera]

“Before there was Bukha in Ukraine, Georgia had Abkhazia. We think Ukraine’s war crimes are being investigated and this is a good opportunity for the world to rename what Russia did to Georgians in Abkhazia as ‘genocide’ ,” Patalaya told Al Jazeera, referring to the Ukrainian town where the Russians were allegedly located Firm atrocity.

While she knows justice may still take years, Meshvelliani is also part of the movement.

Abkhazia's forgotten war crimes
Exterior view of the former Soviet spa building for internally displaced Georgians in Tskartubo, Georgia [Valeria Mongelli/Al Jazeera]

“Even if taken hostage, I’m pretty sure we’ll come out alive. Many people tried to kill themselves, but I managed to stop them. I also protected the children, put them in sacks and sat on them so they would To be hidden from further attacks. Now they are all grown up and alive. That makes me happy,” she said.

“Today, the West seems to have woken up, so I hope from this year that our case will be talked about, and they may actually call it genocide.”

Editor’s note: Tsotne Pataraia and Vasil Matitaishvili contributed to this report by translating interviews.

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