Mike Goldwater on the Day Georgia “Lost” Abkhazia
26 October, 2017
Mike Goldwater on the Day Georgia “Lost” Abkhazia
September 27, the day Sokhumi fell to Abkhazian troops, remains one of the darkest leaves in Georgia’s modern history. Other Abkhazian cities were soon to follow and tens of thousands of Georgian refugees had to embark on a perilous journey through the mountainous Chuberi Pass to make it to safety. There are a few photos and pieces of footage depicting this journey, but none as vivid and visceral as those taken by award-winning British photographer Mike Goldwater.
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Mike
Goldwater, photographer


Goldwater, at the time an up-and-coming pro, founded a photo agency together with friends and approached the Independent Magazine, inquiring whether they would be interested in him flying over to the South Caucasus and covering the Abkhazian conflict. They duly consented and after making a couple of calls with the then-Georgian administration, he found himself on a plane to Tbilisi. Shortly after his arrival, he found a travel mate, “a Polish guy, also a photographer, named Cris,” and together they left for Sokhumi. However, as it turned out, the city fell while they were on the way, so they decided to go to the town of Ochamchire instead, believing it would become the new frontline. From there, as fate would have it, their journey was anything but mundane, with their first involuntary stop coming at the behest of none other than the first president of Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia himself.

24 years on, Goldwater sat down with GEORGIA TODAY to speak publicly for the first time about his Abkhazian adventure, a tale told with a sort of jovial sadness as he looks back to what transpired in those dark days.
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The morning after the Abkhazian advance refugees gather on the Georgian side of the Zugdidi bridge and stare across at the Abkhazian tanks.

By Mike Goldwater

GAMSAKHURDIA

“We were stopped somewhere near Gali by Gamsakhurdia’s security forces, were told that we had to meet him, and then frog-marched right into his office. We took some pictures, made a small interview… But the main thing was he gave us his press-pass, so we now had two passes – one from him, one from the Tbilisi government…”

When asked what his impressions of Georgia’s highly divisive first President were, Goldwater takes a moment to ponder. He underlines he was a “cultured man, but…” and that ‘but’ is the size of elephant. We press on to get more out of him and he complies, chuckling.
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Ex-president Zviad Gamzakhurdia, in military fatigues, makes a brief visit to the military H.Q. in Ochamchire.

By Mike Goldwater

“It’s not only how he came across as a person, but how he behaved. How he, in a way, precipitated the disaster that was just about to unfold… The second time I saw him was in Ochamchire, the day before everybody fled. He was saying ‘we’re going to hold the town,’ giving out orders and things like that… Later that day, we spent some time with the government troops who were preparing to fight Abkhazians. And later on, I discovered that the government troops had been disarmed by Gamsakhurdia’s people. I remember asking myself ‘what’s going on?’ How come these people are squabbling among themselves in the face of impending invasion? Couldn’t get my head around it. I’m no expert, but you didn’t need to be one to figure out that it was not the cleverest thing to do”.

Interrupting, we remark that Gamsakurdia, as disputed as his legacy might be, has retained a staunch base of diminishing supporters to this day, and is widely thought of as the one who was betrayed, the rightful president of the country and not vice versa… And we get a firm rebuttal.

“Be that as it may,” he says, “it was evident that everybody was exasperated with how it was turning out; how it played right into enemy hands. It was the wrong time and wrong place for this confrontation. If not for this conflict between Gamsakhurdia and Shevardnadze, I don’t think the Abkhazian’s would have tried a landgrab the way they did”.

“When Ochamchire fell and everybody was trying to get out of there as fast as possible towards Zugdidi, with the road literally swamped with people and vehicles, some of them even without wheels, I suddenly spotted a tank trundling amongst the civilians. Gamsakhurdia’s tank. I thought – what on earth are they doing there in this crowd of fleeing people? So I took some pictures of this tank. And it was towing a luxury soviet Volga, with armed soldiers in it. One of them, when he sees me taking pictures, jumps out of the car, pulls two guns on me and says: Give me the camera! I did. He took both of my cameras and even my photographer’s vest.

So I’m standing there, on the road, with no passport, no money, no camera, no film with a guy waving his guns around. And then he forced me on top of the tank.

I was sitting on the tank, as he went through all my stuff. Soon Cris joined me, too. And then another photographer. Cris spoke good Russian and he told the soldiers, that we had a pass from Gamsakhurdia. Gamsakhurdia? Oh, Gamsakhurdia! – was the animated answer. So I told them my pass was in my camera vest, they found it, there was another round of “Oo Gamsakhurdia? No problem, Gamsakhurdia!” and eventually they gave me all my stuff back. So I was standing there, next to the road, having gone through this trauma, and someone, an elderly woman actually, from a nearby house who was getting ready to evacuate, came over to us and said: ‘I saw what happened to you, come and have some plum wine!’ So we went with her, drank some plum wine, and got back to normal... She was really sweet and caring and this at the moment her family was hauling their stuff out of there…”

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ZUGDIDI BRIDGE

Zugdidi bridge was but a starting point of the “mass exodus,” as Goldwater calls it. Most of the refugees had to then embark on a several-day walk over the Chuberi Pass to come over to Georgia proper – a torturous journey under the most difficult of circumstances that ended up claiming hundreds of lives. A friendly govt press officer invited him and two other photographers to fly over to the Chuberi Pass on a tiny aircraft full of bread. “Never seen so much bread in one place before – we had to put some on our knees to sit” – he recalls. They landed at the other end of the Chuberi pass, with people flocking to the helicopter. The job was cut out for him, it was all there –the people, the commotion, all the colors for a palette of his choice – all he had to do was to take a few photos and call it a day. But theirs was an inspired bunch and they had other ideas.
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“So we were told that the plane which has delivered the bread was leaving. We had a choice to stay, which would mean walking over the Pass together with everybody else, or getting on the plane and leaving for Tbilisi. We thought – this is the real story, the real deal – so we stayed. The press-officer stayed, too. Funnily enough, I had an inkling we would end up doing just that, so the day before the trip I went over to the airport and bought a bunchload of Mars bars and chocolate biscuits. It turned out to be a rather wise decision: those Mars bars and biscuits ended up being our only nutrition supply as we crossed Chuberi.

“Nightfall. It was cold, people were lighting fires, camping in abandoned cars and huts and such. I had a torch and I was helping myself to make some sort of bed out of branches, when a Georgian soldier came up to me and said: I need your torch! I was none too pleased. So he tells me, ‘I’ll give you my Kalashnikov to be safe!’, trades my torch for his gun and an hour later comes back and swaps again.

“Early next morning, we joined the crowd going over the Pass. It was steep, with a track over that seemed to be part of the riverbed. Due to the melting snow and rain, this track has turned into a massive mudbath, unlike anything I’ve seen before. All the big Russian trucks, cars, even tanks got struck. So everybody, children and elderly included, had to go on foot. I have a picture with two men hauling and trying to get a horse out of the mud – and the mud is literally up to the horse’s belly.

It starts to snow as we head up. And through the tree lines, you could see the bodies of those unfortunate souls who were caught in a blizzard just a couple of days prior and couldn’t make it through alive, covered with bits of blanket and other cloth…”
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Refugees walk with their pack horse past the body of a women as they flee over the Chuberi Pass into Georgia.

by Mike Goldwater

Read full story here

Author: Vazha Tavberidze

Related stories:

The August War: Analysis of Georgian, 'Ossetian' Defense Forces & Combat Strategies

Tearful photos shot 24 years ago – Families fleeing Abkhazia

Georgia's darkest days - Rare photos of the war in Abkhazia by a British journalist

24 years pass since the fall of Sokhumi
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