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Story Publication logo August 14, 2009

Sukhumi: Café Lika on the Brink of War


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The war between Russia and Georgia caught most of the world by surprise but it is a conflict that...

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I'm not sure I can recommend the Abkhazian house wine that gets served in the bars and restaurants of Sukhumi. The Abkhazians make some drinkable wine, like the 'Psou' brand that is served in Moscow's upscale Aromatniy Mir supermarket chain, but their rough and ready house wine is something to be avoided.

That's why, on a summer evening in a Sukhumi café, in the company of tourists from St Petersburg, I was sticking to glasses of chacha - a local grappa that is as strong as hell and as cheap as bananas in Central America. Saturday evenings in Black Sea resorts are times for promenading, browsing the bars and restaurants and possibly planning a late night visit to a disco. At least that is what happens in the other resorts that circle the Black Sea, from Sozopol and Yalta to Sochi, Constanza, and even Batumi, just down the coast in Georgia.

But this was Sukhumi, the capital of the self-proclaimed independent country of Abkhazia. I stepped out of the bar on to a side street away from the sea and was enveloped by silence and the feeling that I was lost. Side street met side street in the darkness, and I wandered past half-ruined buildings, their broken doors and smashed windows not yet repaired after the war that had finished a decade and a half earlier.

Around one corner I at last found a sign of life, a poorly-lit grocery store that was open around the clock. A couple of customers were inside, buying beer and Coke.

Something about the scene depressed me. This Black Sea town had none of the sounds, lights and life of a resort at the height of the summer season. It seemed rejected, outcast, cursed. What unspoken sin had it committed to be condemned to such total abandonment?

Left, left, right, straight a bit and then left again. I wandered aimlessly through the gloomy streets, leaving the grocery store vignette behind, hoping to find something to lift my melancholy. On the corner where Lakoba Street met Confederates Street, I found it.

Café Lika was still serving its guests. They sat outside, their drinks arranged on two tables set on the sidewalk. It was like a scene from a Jim Jarmusch film: strange types, absurd questions and answers, and all lit by dim, moody lights.

A fat oriental-looking woman with black hair invited me to sit down. I sat, and we both watched two unshaven characters talking drunkenly in front of their damaged old Lada car.

"At first I thought it was a UFO landing on my car," one of them explained.

"Have you ever seen a UFO with horse's hoofs?" countered the other. "I knew it was a horse on the car from the moment it made a horsey noise. Jihahahhaaa!" The man started trying to neigh, just like the horse that had landed on their car.

The two had been driving slowly along a bumpy, muddy country road, down from the mountains towards Sukhumi. Suddenly a horse had jumped out of the bushes, nearly killing them both.

"Does this happen in your country too?" one of them asked me. "Horses jumping out and smashing up cars? Where else do things like this happen?"

I ordered another glass of chacha, and watched the two guys driving away with a screech of tyres. The large woman who served me was Lika, the owner of the café. She too took another drink - rough house wine, drunk from a coffee cup with a broken handle - and began talking.

It's a pity, she said, that we didn't meet twenty years earlier, when life was at its best. Back then she used to work for Sovyetskaya Torgovlya, the Soviet retail industry. At a time of massive shortages of food and consumer goods, working in department stores or supermarkets was a dream job. Her old store was located in the northern suburbs of Sukhumi. It was destroyed during the 1992-1993 war against Georgia, its ruins a haunting reminder to drivers passing by of happier times.

Back in 1992, when Georgian troops entered Sukhumi, her job put her on the mafia wanted list. Lika was thought to be rich, as everybody knew that shop staff accepted bribes or channelled goods to favoured customers at inflated prices. Luckily she was in Sochi when the looters came. If she had been at home, she would have been killed trying to protect her possessions.

She isn't an ethnic Abkhazian, although that wouldn't have saved her. Lika Bogdanesyan is Armenian, one of the sizeable Armenian minority that has always lived along the Black Sea coast. Even now, over forty thousand Armenians live in separatist Abkhazia, making up a fifth of its population.

When Lika returned from hiding with friends in Sochi, she found her flat looted and empty. There was nothing left. No carpets, no furniture, no television set, no clothes, no refrigerator.

"Our Georgian neighbours did that. One guy who lived in another part of our apartment block was seen taking furniture away. Two others in the block tried to protect their belongings and were killed. But not all our Georgian neighbours behaved like that. There was one couple living next door - he drove a taxi and she was a nurse in the drug addiction clinic. We were like one big extended family. Whenever somebody needed something - sugar, butter, money, washing powder - we always knew we could borrow from the others."

The couple offered to hide the valuables of their Abkhazian friends so the looters wouldn't find them. When the danger was over, they returned the items. But then they realized that Abkhazian troops were about to recapture Sukhumi and they fled. Lika has not heard from them since.

Many other Georgians lived in their concrete apartment block in the northern suburbs. They were mostly Svans, highland Georgians who had moved in from nearby villages. They had all left, and when the war ended they were replaced by new tenants, mostly Abkhazian.

"Shevardnadze and the Georgians shouldn't have started the war," continued Lika. Even fifteen years on she could barely hide her anger. Her friends in the café felt the same. "The Georgians were our neighbours. We lived peacefully for generations. There were mixed marriages. And then in one single moment this peace was ruined."

"How can I forgive a man who was my neighbour for years and then suddenly wants to loot and kill me? You never know what these Georgians have on their mind. Blood stains can't just be wiped away like water."

But Lika doesn't hate Georgians. How could she? After all she married one. It was a true love story. They had founded Café Lika together ten years ago. Without her he probably would have left Abkhazia, moving away just like all his relatives.

"Was it dangerous for him after the war?" I asked Lika. "To live as a Georgian among Abkhazians?

He suffered terribly during the war, she replied. "He faced firing squads on three different occasions. The Georgians wanted to shoot him as a traitor. The Abkhazians wanted to shoot him because he was Georgian. Each time he walked away alive it was a miracle. But his heart couldn't take it. He had two heart attacks afterwards, and the doctors were able to save him both times. But then he had a third one a year ago, and the doctors couldn't do anything."

None of his relatives came to his funeral - only Lika and her son. A few months ago his sister was allowed to make the journey from her home in Georgia to pay her respects at his grave.

The couple had worked hard to make the café a success. In the beginning, penniless, they brought every cup, plate and glass from their own home for their customers to use. Friends also helped them. At first Lika and her husband lived in the café around the clock. Step by step they built the business up, buying new equipment, fridges, an oven and a microwave. Two or three years ago they had made enough money to hire a waitress and an extra pair of hands in the kitchen. In the summer season they helped visiting Russians to find holiday accommodation, bringing in a few more pennies.

Lika agrees that life has improved in Abkhazia a great deal over the last few years. The worst time was straight after the war, in 1993. Yeltsin's Russia introduced sanctions blocking supplies of food and medecine. People were surviving by shuttling back and forth to Russia, selling Abkhazia's most popular produce - tangerines. They were restricted to 20 kilos per visit. So Russian "kommersanty" would park their lorries just over the border, and set off back for central Russia as soon as they were full.

I remembered that overcrowded border on the outskirts of Sochi from a visit in the nineties. Under the October rain thousands of people with bags, boxes, or trolleys full of tangerines were waiting patiently for their passports to be inspected. On the way back to Abkhazia they would take salt, sugar, rice and other basics.

When Putin's Russia lifted sanctions and opened the border for its own citizens Abkhazia became attractive as a tourist destination. It did not matter to Russians who could not afford holidays abroad or in the neighbouring Sochi that service in Abkhazia was poor. Most were just happy to be able to return to a region they fondly remembered as a Soviet paradise.

"Of course there are more customers in summer. But if only the politicians could sort their problems out it would be even better."

The locals keep coming even in the winter months. Now that her husband is dead, it is their companionship that keeps Lika going with the café. She meets people, she socializes. Otherwise she would suffer the bitter loneliness of living alone at home.

"Now they are preparing for war again". Lika watched TV every night and had no doubts about what the politicians were cooking up in their political kitchens. "They don't care about us ordinary people", she says. She had lost any respect for presidents, ministers or members of parliament a long time ago. "Saakashvili, Putin, Bagapsh, why don't they sit down together at the negotiating table and sort things out?"

Lika's monologue was suddenly rudely interrupted by the sound of a car being badly parked in front of the café with the engine being revved to breaking point. When it was switched off a different noise took over.




The two drunken men were back, still trying to make the sound of a horse landing on their car. They had also picked up a passenger, the owner of that very same car-damaging horse. The three were determined to have at least one more drink before the night ended, and Lika's café was the only one remaining in Sukhumi open so late. How lucky, I thought, that they had not tried to bring the horse along too.

I returned to my Ritza hotel room late at night. From the balcony I watched the dark sea barely lit by the moon and the stars. The room in which I was staying was very special: none other than Comrade Lev Trotsky, one of the top Bolshevik leaders, had stayed there in the early twenties. Stranded in Sukhumi, unable to return to Moscow for Lenin's funeral, he delivered an inspired speech to the local residents praising the achievements of the leader of the October Revolution. His absence from Moscow cost Trotsky dearly. Stalin took firm hold of the reins of the communist party and several years later expelled his chief rival from the USSR.

This was life in Abkhazia in early August 2008. The holiday season was quiet: increasing tension over the preceding months meant that there were fewer visitors. The border with Georgia had been closed after the spring terrorist attacks in the south Abkhazian district of Gali and there had been media reports of military incidents involving unmanned aircraft.

Officials in Sukhumi were alarmed by Tbilisi's summer military exercises. Even before that they had the impression once or twice that the Georgians might attack at any time. Abkhazia's armed forces had been on the highest degree of combat readiness for months. Their biggest worry was the enemy military presence in the upper part of the Kodori gorge.

"For the Georgians it is the shortest way to recapture Sukhumi. Their military vehicles can be here in two hours," pointed out Nugzar Ashoba, speaker of the Abkhazian parliament, before proposing a toast for peace. We were sitting in a small café on the outskirts of the capital, tasting Abkhazian wines and eating that favourite dish of Abkhazians, mamalyga, better known as polenta.

Ashoba, a former Soviet Komsomol apparatchik, had become an expert on wine since the fall of communism. Using his Russian passport he had travelled to France and South America to learn more about wine production. He much preferred discussing chardonnay or merlot grapes to talking about politics. A couple of years ago he had invited a well known Georgian wine grower to come to Abkhazia and establish up new vinyards. A Georgian? I was more than surprised. Wouldn't he be afraid to come here? He should not be, Ashoba replied, for he personally would guarantee his safety.

Ashoba is confident that if Abkhazia's soil is fertile enough to grow first class tangerines, it can produce wine of the highest quality. He looks forward to the day when Abkhazian wines will be able to hold their own in Moscow, or any city in the world.

After the first bottle we discussed the Abkhazian budget. The breakaway republic did not have its own currency. It used Russian roubles. At one stage he feared that the state budget would not be able to meet its obligations. But for the last few years the thousands of Russian holidaymakers who had flooded into Abkhazia, the old Soviet Union's Costa del Sol, had brought with them badly needed roubles. Even those who just came from Sochi for the day spent at least 100 dollars a head. For those who remember the good old Soviet days, Lake Ritsa, the monastery Novy Afon, Stalin's dachas scattered round Abkhazia and the old resorts of Gagry and Pitsunda are national treasures, like Stonehenge or Windsor Castle for visitors to Britain.

Abkhazia has a much stronger economic potential than South Ossetia. Ashoba, who has helped set up his sons in business, is confident that, if peace could be brought to the republic, its economy would soon prosper. One of his sons rents TV sets out to Russian tourists living in the local hotels.

For the last few months he has been afraid of outright military confrontation, on the scale of the war of the early nineties. Bringing Abkhazia back under Georgia's power appeared to be a much higher priority for Mikheil Saakashvili than regaining control over South Ossetia. "If the Georgians attack us, we will retaliate", declared the Speaker of the Abkhazian Parliament. He seemed fairly confident that Abkhazia's independence could be defended. "In 1992 the Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus mobilized volunteers representing ethnic groups like the Cossacks, Adygees, Abasins, Kabardians, Circassians, Ossets, Chechens and many others. They will do it again - the whole of the northern Caucasus will rally to our side."

- And Russia?

- Yes, Russia would help Abkhazia too.

But for all that, on the following day, August 1, one week before war broke out in South Ossetia, he was preparing to go on vacation, in Sochi.

Abkhazia's president Sergei Bagapsh was also planning his summer break with never a thought of war. The Bejing Olympics were only a few days away and he saw no reason to cancel his holiday. After all, Abkhazia didn't exist officially, and there would be no Abkhazian athletes in Beijing for him to cheer.

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