Against the backdrop of war ruins, a young widow — one of the thousands in Abkhazia — waits for a bus in Sukhumi, the capital of the self-proclaimed republic. With public transport scarce, the wait can stretch to an hour. Much of the city center, once lined with palms and oleander, now lies in rubble. Although the fighting ended four years ago, thanks to the post-war economic free-fall, few of the many ruined buildings have been restored.
In the absence of any social safety net in Abkhazia, the International Red Cross has taken an unusual step and opened soup kitchens. The Red Cross delivers relief to some 55,000 people, mostly through the 18 kitchens it runs throughout Abkhazia. As Suhkumi used to be a favored Soviet retirement destination, many of those left here are the forgotten elderly.
Young nuns read during a mass in Zugdidi, the capital of the Mingrelia region just south of Abkhazia in Georgia. Although Western reports routinely characterized the war for Abkhazia as a religious struggle between Moslem Abkhaz and Christian Georgians, the religious divide was greatly exaggerated.
The central market in Zugdidi teems with Georgian refugees from Abkhazia. Farmers from the Gali district cross the Ingury River to sell vegetables here, returning with bread or other scarce products. Since the fighting ended in 1993, Zugdidi has sheltered tens of thousands of displaced families from the Gali region in southern Abkhazia.
“What we won by blood, we will never give up,” vows the Abkhaz “president” Vladislav Ardzinba. A former history professor, Ardzinba rose to power on the nationalist tide that engulfed the small Black Sea republic in the final Soviet years. Since the war’s end in 1993, no state has recognized Abkhazia, and Ardzinba has ruled in virtual isolation. The Abkhaz leader has been busy, however, shuttling among Sukhumi, Tbilisi, and Moscow in search of a final peace settlement.
Eduard Shevardnadze, the Georgian president, was once best known in the West as Mikhail Gorbachev’s foreign minister and the co-architect of perestroika. Having ruled his native Georgia since 1992, Shevardnadze has helped end the fighting in and brought stability to Georgia’s turbulent political and economic landscape.