Koba Kopaliani leaves the room. He closes the door quietly behind him and smokes a cigarette on the small balcony. Behind the door the family is gathered around the only meal of the day: potato soup and bread. Neither Koba nor his wife have jobs so they rely on what money they get from the government to support themselves and their eight children—right now that totals $17 per adult and $7 per child. For the majority of the people living in the city of Tskhaltubo, Georgia, this is the reality of life.
I was in Tskhaltubo to do a story for the Danish NGO Cross Cultures Project Association (CCPA: see http://www.ccpa.dk). They run Open Fun Football schools as a humanitarian project to stimulate the process of democracy, peace, stability and social cohesion in South Eastern Europe by working with antagonistic population groups. In the last 10 years the organization has brought children together through football and games.
The NGO wanted a reportage that showed the living conditions for the people living in Tskhaltubo. I spent three days in Tskhaltubo, the first time in late January and the beginning of February 2007. But I returned at the end of the year to get deeper into the story. I spent almost a week there for my last stay. CCPA has some instructors in Tskhaltubo.
Because they live as part of the community working as football trainers in the local club, almost everybody knows them and that gave me access everywhere. Families welcomed me into their homes for strong coffee and that gave me a good chance of getting close and photographing their lives. I became friendly with a couple of families and stayed with them during both stays. I wanted the families to be relaxed about my presence: I just wanted to be there as they followed their daily routines. I found that history and regional govenments had decimated many lives.
In the Soviet era Tskhaltubo was a very popular spa attracting some 125,000 local visitors every year. Now only about 700 people visit the spa each year and since 1993 many of the sanatorium complexes have been turned into housing for around 9,000 refugees who were displaced by ethnic conflict in Abkhazia. The contrasts are remarkable. On the outside you can still get a feeling of the luxury that once was Tskhaltubo: the buildings are done in grandiose Roman style, but inside these decay rules.
Everything useful was removed, meaning that now there's no running water and small inefficient stoves are used for heating and cooking. The roof leaks and the apartments are small havens for mold and fungi.
War and ethnic cleansing: Squeezed between the Black Sea and the Caucasus mountains, Abkhazia was known as the Soviet Riviera in the 1970s and 1980s, when millions of international tourists came every year to enjoy its beaches and subtropical climate. Its agriculture supplied Soviet markets with tobacco, precious woods and citrus fruits. At the end of the 1980s, however, this peaceful area became a violent zone of conflict, making Abkhazia a symbol for the failure of Soviet policies to accommodate competing ethnic claims. The conflict over political status reached its climax with the war of 1992–93 when the Abkhaz ethnic minority declared independence from Georgia. Georgian troops intervened in the political conflict between the two main nationalities, that is Abkhazians and Georgians. The Georgian troops were driven out by Abkhaz troops supported by nationalist movements from the North Caucasus and by the Russian military.
As a consequence of this victory, the Abkhaz authorities attempted to consolidate their position by changing the demographic situation (i.e., ethnic cleansing). The majority of the Georgian inhabitants of Abkhazia fled to Georgia (approximately 240,000-300,000 people out of a total Abkhaz population of half a million) and they were not allowed to return. The refugees found places to live in shut down army barracks, schools and hotels and, unfortunately, most still live there. To date no solution has been found to the political and humanitarian dilemmas at the heart of the conflict. The total number of Georgians killed in this process of ethnic cleansing ranges from 10,000 to 30,000 and does not include the numbers of missing, wounded and tortured people.
One good day: A precise cut draws an end to the pig's life. Hot water is poured over the pig and hair is meticulously removed from its skin. Everything is of use – meat, skin and organs – and everything is sorted and kept in buckets brought in by the women. Butchering the pig signals a day of celebration and everybody's dipping into the homemade wine and booze while a bucket of cooked meat is passed around. Today is a good day. Tomorrow reality checks in again and all are back to a life with no hope of getting a job, no hope of a solution to the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. With no hope of returning to the homeland.
Koba Kopaliani tucks his eight children into the three beds that the family share. It's getting late and the small stove struggles to keep the room warm in the cold winter night. Koba has a last cigarette on the balcony. The clear night tells him that tomorrow will be another long, cold day.