Karlos Zurutuza
Freelance correspondent specializing in the Caucasus and the Middle East regions. He has reported for numerous publications including Al Jazeera, IPS, Vice, Deutsche Welle, and The Diplomat. Basque Country.

It is often argued that Abkhazia is a one road country. It is 200 kilometres along the coastal road between the Ingur and the Psou rivers; between Georgia and the border with Russia. Sukhum lies just halfway along that road. The Abkhazian capital remains sleepy for most of the year and it is only in sum­mer when it gets busy with Russian tourists aching for the sun and the warm waters of the Black Sea. Al­though a majority of them will stay in Gagra or Pitsunda —two summer resort-towns further west along the coast close to the Russian border—, Sukhum is always good for a day trip.

But these days hardly any of the Russian visitors venture east from Sukhum. Places like Ochamchira have slipped below the visitors’ horizons. It’s a ghost town which was popular in the days of the Soviet Union. At Ochamchira’s derelict train station, blue paint peels off the walls of the once­ smart waiting rooms. It is difficult to believe that trains would regularly arrive here from Moscow in the 1980s, each one laden with Russians coming south to recharge their sun-starved batteries. Ochamchira was especially popular as an autumn-break destination for a pre­-winter dose of sun, vodka and tangerines.

Those getting off the trains from Russia stretched on the platform while they were ambushed by a legion of babushkas armed with gherkins and khachapuri — the local cheesecake — or ice cream and soft drinks for the kids. On the platform, it was easy to distinguish between visitors who had just arrived and those who were about to leave. The latter always took their tan back home. Suddenly, there was a roar as the coal-train from Tkvarchal rumbled through the station. It was transporting thousands of tons of high-quality coal on its back, down to the quayside in Ochamchira whence it would be shipped to Sevastopol or Odessa. Children covered their ears as the train passed and then sooty faces broke into smiles. But that was three decades ago. Today, the cheesecake-vendors are long gone, the railway tracks are rusting and it’s many a year since any coal was exported through Ochamchira.

Ochamchira is Очамчыра in Abkhaz and Очамчира in Russian. For Mingrelians it’s not the way a name is written that matters for, despite attempts to establish Mingrelian as a literary language going right back to late-tsarist and early Soviet times, this is a language where the spoken word is everything. They have their own language, culture and identity, but they have never asserted rights to statehood, and neither Georgia nor Abkhazia is much inclined to give space to these inhabitants of the border-zone.

Today, Mingrelians are few and far between in Ochamchira. There is the dramatic poignancy of silence, the unspoken, unwritten name of a community that was once home to one of Europe’s rare minorities.

Andrei, we´re told, is a Mingrelian. He wanders aim­lessly through the ruins of the station. “Please do not record me,” he says, even before we introduce ourselves. This blue-eyed man in his early 60s used to be a mechanic: he worked here at the station for almost 20 years. “Over there, in that booth,” he says. He quit when they needed someone to take care of the Ferris wheel in the city centre. “It’s down there, just one kilometre from here, close to the beach.”

Andrei says tourists would queue for an hour to enjoy the panoramic view over the sea to port, and the imposing Caucasus peaks to starboard. He re­members everything, even the Syrians. “They of­ten stayed in that big hotel,” he says, pointing to the shell of a 14-­storey building. “That’s where the élite of Damascus came on holiday.” Apparently, the Syrians who rode the Ferris wheel always gave generous tips. “Everything was very cheap for them here.” Andrei just had to make sure that the wheel kept turning. It only stopped when the queue vanished. Then the four engines of the Ferris wheel were ripped out.

“You cannot possibly imagine how beautiful all this was,” he recalls nostalgically. It’s the third time he has used those same words in our all­-too-brief conversation. With each repetition of the litany, his voice becomes ever sadder. “I’m sorry, I have to leave because I have many things to do,” he says abruptly, as if the Ferris wheel was about to crank back into action after decades of silence.