Bombs and bullets, not ballots, concern in west of Georgia

GAGRA, Georgia — While most of the rest of Georgia was to vote Sunday in parliamentary elections, refugees returning to the north of the breakaway Abkhazia region were concerned about bread and bullets rather than ballots.

The Abkhazian refugees straggled back to Gagra and other towns in the north of the former autonomous republic, which Abkhazian extremists retook from Georgian troops Oct. 2 in the latest battle of a three-month war for control of the region.

Those who returned were faced with grim reminders of the fighting, including two bloated corpses that washed up on the Black Sea coast of the former resort area. The fighting also left no running water, food shortages and gaping holes in buildings.

And while the minority Abkhazians felt they could return to Gagra because it is now controlled by nationalist fighters, Georgian refugees who fled their homes in the area crowded hotels in the capital Tbilisi.

Abkhazia is an autonomous republic inside the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Abkhazians, who are a minority in the ethnically mixed region, are fighting for more autonomy or independence from Georgia. They have been aided by armed volunteers from the Caucasus Mountains in southern Russia, and Georgia charges the Russian army is also helping.

In the south of Abkhazia, Georgian troops reinforced positions in the regional capital Sukhumi during the weekend to prepare for an expected assault by Abkhazian forces.

But in Gagra, along the Black Sea about 50 miles south of the Russian border, life was returning to a semblance of normal — at least for the Abkhazians who controlled the city.

Dozens of Abkhazian refugees, most of them on foot and some pushing carts of belongings and herding one or two cows, trudged along the the road from Sochi in Russia to return to their homes in and near Gagra.

‘Yesterday and today all Abkhazians have been coming back,’ said Inna Lukina, an ethnic Russian native of Gagra who had been walking for six hours with her preschool-aged daughter and was only about halfway home. ‘They said everything is normal now.’

In Gagra, buses were running, most of the town had electric service and officials were awaiting a 10-ton shipment of flour from Russia so bakeries could return to operation.

‘We are doing all we can to restore the normal life to the city,’ Mayor Ruslan Yazyzhba said. ‘Tangerines ripen at the end of October. We will bring them in, also the grapes, corn and tobacco.’

Signs of the war were everywhere, however.

Charred cars littered the streets, residents were forced to carry water from mountain streams because the city waterworks were still out of commission from the fighting and damaged buildings were everywhere. Authorities arrested dozens of looters, and there were rumors that some were shot.

On the once-peaceful pebble and sea-shell beach near the Energetics Hotel where one of the Georgian milita groups was headquartered before the Oct. 2 Abkhazian offensive, two bloated corpses were washed up by the sea Saturday.

Mayor Yazyzhba repeated a popular Abkhazian belief that the corpses were Georgians who had been dropped into the sea from helicopters by their own comrades during the retreat, but there was no evidence to back the story up.

Reporters also saw no evidence to substantiate the Georgian claim that Abkhazians had massacred hundreds of Georgians in Gagra after they retook the town.

Further south, in the town of Gudauta where Abkhazian independence leaders decamped after the capital Sukhumi was taken by the Georgians Aug. 14, authorities were worried about bread supplies and sure that more fighting was coming despite a lull of several days.

Gennady Gagulia, a member of the Abkhazian Defense Committee in charge of food supplies, said there is only enough flour for a day or two in most cities unless shipments get through, and he added milk and baby food had mostly disappeared.

‘Our stores don’t sell anything right now,’ Gagulia said. ‘What food we have is humanitarian aid (from Russians and Abkhazian expatriates) and that is only 10 to 15 percent of what we normally need. ‘

Sporadic firing can be heard further south along the the Gumista River that separates Abkhazian forces from the Georgian troops in Sukhumi. Buildings in the area stand mostly empty, with jagged holes and broken windows. A statue that once depicted Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin pointing to the sky now stands with the arm lying 60 feet away.