The deep, lush Kodori Gorge is a narrow sliver of the breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia.
The deep, lush Kodori Gorge is a narrow sliver of the breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia. Gregory Feifer/NPR
and Alice Kreit/NPR
and Alice Kreit/NPR
A bridge along a narrow dirt track separates Georgian-controlled territory from separatist Abkhazia. Russian peacekeeping soldiers stand guard on the other side.
A bridge along a narrow dirt track separates Georgian-controlled territory from separatist Abkhazia. Russian peacekeeping soldiers stand guard on the other side. Gregory Feifer/NPR
The Georgian authorities say they have stationed 500 Interior Ministry troops to provide security in the Kodori Gorge.
The Georgian authorities say they have stationed 500 Interior Ministry troops to provide security in the Kodori Gorge. Gregory Feifer/NPR
Dodo Kvichiani with her daughter and mother, who says she needs an operation on her back. Kvichiani fled Abkhazia in 1993 through the Kodori Gorge, where she says she saw many die from cold and starvation.
Dodo Kvichiani with her daughter and mother, who says she needs an operation on her back. Kvichiani fled Abkhazia in 1993 through the Kodori Gorge, where she says she saw many die from cold and starvation. Gregory Feifer/NPR
The former Soviet republic of Georgia is demanding an apology from Russia after a United Nations report this week backed Tbilisi's accusation that Moscow shot down a Georgian unmanned reconnaissance plane. The two countries are locked in a bitter standoff over Abkhazia, a pro-Moscow separatist region of Georgia.
Russia, which maintains a peacekeeping force in Abkhazia, says Tbilisi is planning to attack the province from the remote Kodori Gorge. It's a tiny sliver of the breakaway province, part of which is under Georgian control.
The upper half of the Kodori Gorge is very narrow and extremely isolated. Only about 2,000 people live along a barely passable dirt road in simple wooden houses — many in bad condition.
This beautiful corner of Abkhazia was largely shut off from the rest of the world until Georgian troops retook control two years ago. Tbilisi has now based its own so-called Abkhaz government-in-exile here, to rival the separatists based in Abkhazia's capital, Sukhumi, about 40 miles away.
The administration's head, Malkhaz Akishbaya, says Georgia has established law and order in the valley.
"This region used to be a nightmare," he says. "This region was basically run by criminals. We had abductions, killings, blackmailing, everything here. We had these mass violations of human rights of our citizens. We needed to do something to put it in a right way."
Georgia has sunk tens of millions of dollars into building roads, a hospital and a school. It's hoping the impoverished Abkhaz are taking notice.
'Not About Georgia Anymore'
The border along the roaring Kodori River doesn't resemble a frontline. Only a handful of Georgian troops in U.S.-provided military uniforms are dug into sandbagged shelters. Just across a small wooden bridge, Russian peacekeepers keep the Georgians and Abkhaz apart.
The rebels, angry over Tbilisi's presence here, are demanding the Georgian troops withdraw before any peace talks resume, while Moscow accuses the Georgians of massing for an attack against Abkhazia. But the Georgian authorities insist there are no more than 500 police commandos providing security for the valley's residents.
District commander Yuri Vasiliev says it would make no sense to attack Abkhazia from this narrow valley.
"There's nowhere even to turn around here. This isn't the 15th century. You need space for troops and heavy military equipment," he says. "How can you bring them here unnoticed?"
Georgia, in turn, has accused Moscow of deploying heavy military equipment in Abkhazia. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili says that Russia is furious over Tbilisi's drive to join the European Union and NATO and that Moscow wants to annex Abkhazia.
"Russia is defying the European and world order that has been established after the end of the Cold War," he says. "It's not about Georgia anymore. For the rest of Europe, it should be about the values they always preached to us."
Saakashvili says Abkhazia has refused to respond to his offer of autonomy. Georgia has dismissed claims that the ethnically separate Abkhaz people were fighting for their survival during the civil war that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Tbilisi says it was Abkhazia's 250,000 Georgians who were ethnically cleansed and forced to flee.
No Sign of Relief
Outside Tbilisi, hundreds of Georgian refugees from Abkhazia live in a dilapidated concrete building. Whole families are crammed into single rooms along dark, crumbling, graffiti-painted corridors. Like many others, Dodo Kvichiani fled Abkhazia in 1993 through the Kodori Gorge, where she saw people die from starvation and freak cold weather.
"We spent seven days crossing the mountains after the Abkhaz forced us from our homes," she says. "My husband is ill from depression because we left everything behind. Our lives are miserable."
Many of the refugees say all the victims of the conflict should bury their differences and live together again. But with tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow continuing to run high, there appears to be no relief in sight for the hundreds of thousands of shattered lives on both sides of Abkhazia's border.