We knew almost nothing about Abkhazia when we visited for the first time in 2006. During our virtual travels through the country across maps on the internet, we discovered a fascinating landscape of mountains and rivers, with the majority of the towns spread out along the Black Sea. We read about snowy mountains of dizzying height that rise straight out of the sea, about endless beaches and lush gardens full of palms, tea bushes and citrus trees. We put the place names Sukhumi and Gagra in our mouths and savoured them like exotic morsels.
This coastal strip on the Black Sea was once the Riviera of the Soviet Union. Stalin had two dachas there. His successor, Khrushchev, swam in Pitsunda’s warm waters when the Communist Party in Moscow ousted him to make way for the party mastodon Brezhnev. In the literature and Soviet guidebooks, Abkhazia sounds like a dream, a subtropical oasis on the Black Sea, a promised land.
The more we read about it, the more it enticed us, like a fairy tale; but a fairy tale tinged with black. On the flip side are the ruins, the pot-holed roads along which only the overgrown, concrete stairs of houses still stand, the rusted gates and car wrecks, the twisted remains of the horrific civil war that erupted here in the early ’90s. It reminded us of areas such as Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia and Kosovo, all small, violent and unviable provinces of artificially created countries. Abkhazia had been destroyed by civil war and forced into isolation, but had kept itself going for 15 years despite an international boycott and a tourism-based economy in a region without tourists.
The Abkhazians live in devastation and poverty. During the war they deported 200,000 Georgians and in so doing went from being a vacation paradise to a totally isolated country. The 200,000 refugees live in equally impoverished conditions and are filled with nostalgia for their lost paradise. This cynical parallel was the reason for us to make four trips to Abkhazia and to record this obscure and painful conflict.
Empty land, Promised land, Forbidden land is not an encyclopaedic history or analysis of the conflict or the geopolitics in the region. Rather, it is an ode to the Caucasus and its proud inhabitants.
Rob Hornstra and Arnold van Bruggen / The Sochi Project
Empty Land, Promised Land, Forbidden Land is exhibited at Foto8 Gallery until 5 April 2012. There will be a talk with Rob and Arnold at Foto8 on Friday 16 March.