Dodge Billingsley
Director, Combat Films & Research and Global QRF. Editor and Contributor: OE Watch (FMSO), Author: Fangs of the Lone Wolf: Chechen Tactics in the Russian Chechen Wars 1994-2009. UK.

November 1997.  Back in Abkhazia, again staying at the United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) compound. This was my fourth trip to greater Georgia since 1993 and my second to Abkhazia specifically. I first arrived in Sukhum during summer 1995 via an overnight boat from Turkey. The boat departed Trabzon once a week arriving in Sukhum the next morning. One of the first things that struck me about Abkhazia, even before getting there, was the variety of nationalities present in the aspiring breakaway republic. The collapse of the Soviet Union and relative ease with which one could move around the region in the early to mid-1990s led members of the diaspora to return to Abkhazia, while others, now free to leave, moved away from the post-Soviet bloc likely never to return. The ship’s passengers were a microcosm of these movements of people. Prior to departure I sneaked a look at the ship’s manifest. There were nearly 100 people on board. More than half were of Abkhazian or Circassian lineage but from the Middle East: Syria and Jordan primarily. On board, an Abkhazian doctor, who resided in Sukhum and had been in Turkey to buy essentials, befriended me, and I was grateful. At one point during the overnight voyage some of the Syrian men seemed agitated with my presence. They confronted me although the language barrier precluded me from truly understanding what the problem was. It crossed my mind that they might throw me overboard. My new, and first, Abkhazian friend had a few harsh words for them and made me bunk with him and his family.  He watched over me the rest of the night. 

I lost track of the doctor during disembarkation the next morning. I looked around, but he was gone. He was my first positive impression of Abkhazia, and I hadn’t even stepped onto Abkhazian soil. I hoped I would see him again, but I never did A moment later, I met up with my contacts in the Foreign Ministry, who were waiting for me next to the “customs” table Russian soldiers had set up—next to a tripod-mounted machine-gun—lest any of the arriving passengers posed a threat. Standing nearby, Satenik, who would become my second Abkhazian friend, called my name. I raised my hand and identified myself, she waved back, and a few minutes later we were on our way to the Foreign Ministry building in the centre of town, past the Red Bridge, with which I would become familiar as my Abkhazian hosts told me the story of the war with Georgia. 

Sukhum was in a pretty rough condition, and it was recommended I stay at the UNOMIG compound south of the city centre and the Red Bridge. A few days later during the heat of the day a German soldier and I walked across the M27 highway from the UNOMIG compound to take a swim in the Black Sea. The beach and shoreline were still scarred from war, but the water was cool, and it was a much needed break.  At one point a Russian soldier, in half uniform, came riding up on a horse shouting: “I will show these Abkhazians how to ride a horse!”  I’m not sure why he felt the need to tell us that, but he stopped, looked us over critically as if to ask “What are you doing here?” but more as a declaration rather than a question, and kicked his horse into a fast trot down the beach.

I was very interested in Abkhazia’s bid for independence and met numerous Abkhazians who had been combatants during the war. A former militiaman named Tetra took me to the heights around the city and pointed out the village of Shroma. He explained the final battle pushing the Georgians out of the capital. Later he took me up into the Kodor Corridor to a place where they set up watch-positions to observe the final exodus of Georgian civilians and combatants out of Sukhum and into Svanetia, or the Svan Valley in early fall 1993. I was intrigued by the narrow Kodor Valley, the River Kelasur and its mined riverbank. It was a potential back door in and out of Abkhazia, and Georgia at the time was full of gossip about a pending offensive to retake lost territories.  I determined then to explore this on my next trip, and now I would get my chance.

The road to Svanetia from the Russian Checkpoint at Lata. Author’s own photo
The road to Svanetia from the Russian Checkpoint at Lata. Author’s own photo.

I arrived a few days ago, this time via car across the River Ingur and the de facto border with Georgia. Actually two cars. A Georgian friend dropped me off at the border-area. I walked through what amounted to a demilitarized zone and was met by Abkhazian friends, who took me into Sukhum—again to the UNOMIG compound. The faces had changed but the Mission was the same. A few days into my trip I connected with UNOMIG for a patrol up the Kodor Corridor led by a British Royal Marine named Chris. Chris was the deputy team-leader of the Kodor Valley Patrol.  Our party consisted of two vehicles, three UNOMIG personnel, two Abkhazian translators, my colleague Rod and myself. We turned south out of the compound onto the M27, and left again a few miles south, due east towards Svanetia. The wide valley narrowed quickly. According to Chris, the Kodor Corridor was “potentially a route that could be used for an attack on the Abkhazians or for the Abkhazians to attack the Georgians… so we are here to monitor and make sure there is no military movement up and down this road.” At the end of the Kodor Corridor lay Svanetia, the Svan Valley, occupied by Svans, whose ethnic connection to Georgians was in dispute depending whether you were talking to Abkhazians, Georgians or Svans themselves. 

Reflecting back, 1997 seemed far enough removed from the war that ended in the fall of 1993, but there were still multiple military checkpoints in the Kodor. Ostensibly, the checkpoints were there to protect the integrity of the national boundary, but according to the UN personnel, the real purpose was to monitor traffic, because the “Abkhazians don’t want the Georgians re-supplying the Svans and we don’t want anyone resupplying the Abkhazians via this east-west main supply-route.” I don’t know how serious this threat was, but I heard it numerous times while in Abkhazia. Eventually we came across the last Abkhazian military checkpoint in the corridor. There were four Abkhazian soldiers manning the checkpoint, but it didn’t seem as though they had a lot to do.  They were gutting a fish they had just caught in the River Kelasur below. They reminded us to stay on the road before we left—don’t walk to the river!—there were mines everywhere.

We continued up the narrow valley until we reached a Russian military checkpoint near the village of Lata. The Russian commander was used to the semi-regular UNOMIG patrols, but there was some interest in the Americans accompanying the patrol. They let us proceed up the canyon as they knew we had to pass by them on the way back. The road became impassable a couple miles upstream—washed out by high water on the river. According to Chris: “There are currently six areas where a vehicle can’t pass due to raging water coming off the high ground. It is part of our monitoring job to know the condition of the road. We hired a contractor to make the road passable but it doesn’t get done. We’re pretty sure the Abkhazians don’t want the road passable.” 

Russian Soldier at the Russian Company Command near Lata. Author’s own photo.
Russian Soldier at the Russian Company Command near Lata. Author’s own photo.

We turned around and went back to the Russian checkpoint. The company commander and members of his staff came out to talk. Eventually the discussion turned to me and my colleague. It was unusual to see Americans up in the valley. There had been at least one American soldier on the UNOMIG mission, but he was of Russian heritage and told me that he was always considered a spy by the Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia. We were invited to come inside for a sit down and a drink from the homemade still operating just outside the back door of the command post, otherwise known as a “chacha ambush”. Satenik and others had warned me about the homemade-alcohol being served around Abkhazia, but the commander’s strongly suggested invite was more of an order.

The building was in pretty rough shape and appeared to double as the barracks and command-post. The building had been the centre of at least one previous firefight. It was pockmarked by bullet and RPG fire, and burn-scars stained the walls black above the exterior windows.  Many of the windows were boarded up against the cold. Bits of smoke billowed out from some of the window openings. Inside two soldiers played ping-pong on a table in the centre of the main room. Light from the partially boarded up windows streaked across the floor and table and cut into the smoky haze that permeated the entire room. The source of the smoke, a stove in the corner provided heat—but it wasn’t enough. We followed the Russian commander down a hall and into a smaller room adjacent to what looked to be an operations room. By now there were three or four Russians in addition to the captain. Within minutes a jug of chacha was brought in. Instead of a tiny shot glass, full pint tumblers were put in front of each of us and filled to the brim. I am not a drinker and knew there was no way I could pass this test. I was stressed and wondered how I would get out of this. Thankfully, the floorboards were roughly assembled and the cracks between planks were a half-inch or more. One toast led to another and after bringing the glass to my lips I would lower it to my side hold it near my ankles and pour it down between the floorboards so my glass would empty like all the others. Unfortunately I became impatient and was the first to empty my glass to which there were some looks of surprise and a refill. The Russian sergeant sitting across from me raised his glass and proclaimed: “The American shows us the way.” Everyone laughed, but this was a terrible turn of events. The jug came out again, the glasses filled, and the drinking accelerated. This time I faked my drinking more slowly. 

By now Rod was drunk, the Russians were drunk, the UNOMIG personnel were less so, while our vigilant patrol leader Chris and his translator had abstained. I still don’t recall how it was decided we should go to the banja, but, before I knew it, Chris had split off to talk to the Russian captain, and Rod and I were undressed and in a very hot steam room. I was sure it was too hot to have been of any health benefit. Rod and I talked about how we had to get out of there, but, before we could hatch a good excuse, a sturdy Russian sergeant entered the sauna wearing flip flops, a skull cap and gloves—nothing else. He also held a branch and proceeded to beat us with it to bring the blood to the surface. It was so hot, and now this guy was beating us with a branch for some dubious health benefit. I had to get out of there. Thankfully the light bulb broke—I am sure due to the excessive heat. I stepped out the door to find a towel or something with which to cover myself when a young Russian soldier threw a bucket of ice water on me. I nearly jumped back into the steam room. They laughed and maybe apologized for not having a cold pool nearby. They pointed to the river and suggested we could run across the minefield to jump in the frigid water but were afraid we would step off the trail and get blown up. Instead these junior enlisted guys were ordered to bring water up and douse us as we came out of the sauna. I put on a towel and had Rod take a polaroid to commemorate the strange afternoon, although it wasn’t over yet…

Before leaving, the Russian captain insisted that we, mainly he and the British Royal Marine Chris, have a marksmanship challenge. Normally this would be okay but half the group was still fall-down drunk. Rod complained he couldn’t feel his lips and worried he might have alcohol poisoning. I thought it served him right for drinking so much. I also thought one of us is going to get shot by accident. Chris was also not excited about the situation and was doing his best to be accommodating while figuring out how to get us safely on our way back to UNIOMIG HQ in Sukhum. He clearly shot better than anyone else, and that only made the Russians try harder. We all took turns shooting at targets on the fence in front of the minefield. All of a sudden in-coming tracer rounds originating from our right hit the target. We all jumped, some of us scrambled for safety. I crouched down by the rear bumper of one of the UN vehicles. A jeep with a mounted crew-served weapon pulled up packed with Abkhazian soldiers we had met at their checkpoint previously. They had heard the shooting from their position and came to investigate. Seeing it was just friendly target-practice they decided to join the fun and announced their arrival by going full automatic on our targets.

The Russians were angry. There were multiple arguments going on at the same time between the Russians and Abkhazians. One of the drunk sergeants lunged out at the Abkhazians who easily moved to avoid his inebriated punches. “Let’s go, let’s go!” Chris saw his chance to get us out of there and quietly ordered all of us back into the vehicles quickly while the Russians and Abkhazians were sorting out their differences. I looked in the rearview-mirror as we drove away. We had left abruptly, and I saw one of the Russians say something to the company commander and point to us. We raced ahead. The road was winding and up and down, we sped up over one more hill and were beyond line of sight. There was a mutual sigh of relief, and we sped a little faster than we probably should towards the M27. Chris turned to us all and stated somewhat dictatorially: “We will not be discussing this part of the patrol in the debriefing.” A few days later I was preparing to leave Abkhazia. One of the translators I had been with came in with some sad news. One of the Abkhazian militiamen I talked to at the checkpoint, who had warned us not to leave the road, had stepped on a mine and lost his leg.