Before Bucha in Ukraine, There Was Abkhazia In Georgia: An Interview With Tamara Chergoleishvili

The Bucha massacre has been one of the most shocking events of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. The satellite images from March 19, documented by the New York Times, showed civilians’ bodies lying on the small town’s streets, just 15 miles outside of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. 

According to local authorities, more than 400 people were killed in Bucha by fatal gunshots. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of committing genocide against the Ukrainians, a claim shared by U.S. President Joe Biden, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas

Following the Bucha massacre, several Ukrainian journalists contacted Tabula Media in Georgia to gather evidence regarding the cruelty committed by Russia in the 1990s, when Georgians fought a brutal war against Abkhaz separatists and Russian forces in the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia. Consequently, Georgian journalists began uncovering stories of human rights abuses committed by Russian and Abkhazian fighters against the ethnic Georgian population. As a result, the Georgian opposition party European Georgia, alongside the NGOs Voter’s Education Society (VES), Liberty Institute, Tabula Media and Abkhaz Assembly, created a campaign for genocide recognition called “Before Bucha There Was Abkhazia.”

The war in Abkhazia, currently a de facto independent state located on the Black Sea coast in the northwestern part of Georgia, broke out in 1992 after the fall of the Soviet Union. Abkhaz forces, aided by fighters from the Russian Federation, fought a 16-month war against the ethnic Georgians living in Abkhazia. 

The Georgian Committee on Human Rights and Interethnic Relations estimated that 4,000 ethnic Georgians (including civilians and combatants) were killed, 10,000 were wounded, 1,000 went missing and 250,000 (approximately 50 percent of the population of Abkhazia) were displaced. The rights of those Georgians that remain in Abkhazia have since worsened. 

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) recognized the ethnic cleansing of Georgians in Abkhazia in several conventions. In 1994, the Georgian government established a national investigative commission to determine whether what Russia committed in Abkhazia could be considered genocide. Approximately 25,000 survivors were interviewed, and the commission identified 800 people who committed human rights violations. The Prosecutor’s Office of Georgia used the commission’s report to initiate an investigation into this issue. The summary of the investigation was sent to the UN office in Geneva, but it did not yield any significant outcome. 

The campaign “Before Bucha There Was Abkhazia” managed to reintroduce the topic of genocide against ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia to Georgian society. The organizers made several events, one of which was an interactive exhibition in one of Tbilisi’s most notable nightclubs, where people could see war-related installations and hear the recorded testimonies of survivors. 

The Global Policy Institute sat down with Tamara Chergoleishvili, the director of the Voter’s Education Society and one of the leading figures of this campaign, at her exhibition in Tbilisi, Georgia, for an interview. 

How did you start working on this campaign, and what have you done so far?

The director of the Ukrainian media company contacted me because the journalists were making an investigation of atrocities committed by Russia, and they wanted to show Russia’s genocidal tactics, and how they have been used in Bucha. They were first interested in finding evidence from the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, when the villages of Samachablo [also known as South Ossetia] were under attack. However, many Georgians escaped from their villages and later decided to contact the Assembly of Abkhazians, a local organization, because what happened in Abkhazia back in the 1990s could resemble the modern-day situation in Ukraine. Consequently, after we collected all the information, I realized that Ukrainians should not be alone in working on this issue, and it is something that we should do as well because even I, a person who is well informed about the occurrences in Georgia, found what I learned about Abkhazia shocking and devastating. 

I knew that many bad things had happened in Abkhazia, like when Abkhazian soldiers cut off the heads of Georgians to play football. However, when those beheaded heads have names, [when there are] children, some of whom were raped or tortured, and when you know their addresses, where they lived and what positions they held, you start to evaluate this situation from a different perspective. In the village of Aklhaldaba, removing the water from wells was impossible because ethnic Georgians had been thrown into them, and the local population could hear their screams. Survivors of this calamity also said that they were giving their kids candies for them not to speak in the Georgian language, so they wouldn’t be recognized by the army officers and eventually killed. 

They are not recounting these stories on purpose, just to show that they have been targeted  because of their ethnicity. There are 25,000 testimonies in the Office of the Prosecutor of Georgia that are not public. We’ve symbolically asked the government to make those testimonies public, just because we want the whole country to know that those testimonies are there. Simultaneously, we want to start doing our own research to find more stories. We even started an international fundraiser. At this moment, we believe that what we have to do is to raise awareness about this issue in Georgian society. 

What obstacles did you encounter while working on this campaign?  

The main obstacle for us is the lack of trust among the refugees from Abkhazia. Since so many years have passed without them receiving much attention, they lack hope for the future. However, the war in Ukraine has changed everything drastically. Georgians became more involved with the occurrences in Ukraine, and since there was a large humanitarian cost there, I started looking for ways to bring this issue to the attention of Georgian society. We later made our first event, and our message was that it is wrong that 250,000 citizens have not received much attention, and that we need to understand the significance that our past entails. For that reason, we created an interactive exhibition that included several testimonies of genocide survivors. 

What do you think are your current accomplishments? 

After we made this exhibition, we saw that this topic is very significant for our fellow citizens based on their reactions. This issue transcends all ideological and political barriers, and helps us see what is really important. Because I saw people that are not necessarily the supporters of European Georgia, that do not agree with us on all issues, but they still came there because the issue of genocide is very important for them, and they are interested to learn more about it. 

I realized for the first time during our exhibition that this is a consolidating issue, that I and someone who has completely different views can unite. This is an issue where we all reach an agreement among ourselves. I believe that this issue is very important in battling polarization in our country, and it is an important topic for the synergy of our society. Then it happened that the European Union refused to give us the status of the candidate country, which I believe was entirely fair. What followed this decision was the hysteria from the Georgian Dream party, where the current government has been arguing for three months that the West wants to drag us into the war. The main problem is that isolation from the West means we will be one-on-one with Russia. 

In this situation, the best counter-propaganda campaign is the genocide recognition campaign, because the genocide took place in the 90s, when we were alone against Russia. In other words, [leader of the ruling party] Bidzina Ivanishvili wants to bring us back to be face-to-face with Russia when he wants to isolate us from the west. When the genocide survivors recount their stories and explain what it means to be left alone with Russia, people will learn more from them than from any other politicians. For that reason, I believe that this issue has geopolitical significance. We also made two other events, where we showed people a movie about Russian aggression during the Five Day War in 2008 and the war in the 90s. Our goal was to show them that Russian aggression had not changed since the 90s. In fact, it only grew bigger. In the 90s, Russia did not even use its regular army to fight us in Abkhazia to achieve the same goals it wants to achieve — and is unable to do so — in Ukraine. 

How do you respond to criticism from a certain part of Georgian society that says this campaign could create unrest among Georgians and Abkhazians?  

The Russian regime managed to convince some parts of Georgian society  that it is not a side in this conflict. We pretend that we were the ones who were fascist, and that we were aggressive towards Abkhazians and that what was in the 90s was an ethnic conflict. However, this is the narrative fabricated by Russia. As we can see, it failed in relation to Ukraine. Russia used the identical scenario of calling other nations fascists. And in our case, it did succeed, but it failed miserably in Ukraine, just because Ukraine has large support from the west. 

We were told by several fellow Georgians that this campaign is unhelpful, just because it prevents us from gaining the trust of Abkhazians. However, we talk about the responsibility of Russia, and whoever neglects to blame it for what happened in the 90s will be unable to rebuild trust with Abkhazians and achieve peace and stability. Peaceful negotiations with the current population of Abkhazia will take place once we realize what Russia’s role was in the conflict. 

How do you think Abkhazians will respond to this campaign? 

I do not think that Abkhazian society is unable to understand why we talk about the responsibility of Russia in this conflict, and why we shouldn’t talk about the human rights abuses in the Gali district, where ethnic Georgians live in an apartheid regime. The problem is that the Russian influence in Abkhazia is very large, and it prevents us from having adequate negotiations. 

Have you garnered any support from our partners?  

For now, we have received big support from people on Twitter who have had any connection to Georgia. Now, it is our responsibility to see if this topic will be discussed in the parliaments of other countries. As I said, there are testimonies of 25,000 people. It will be hard to find evidence, since it’s been 30 years since the war, but we need to at least try, on our behalf, to find them and then see what other democratic countries will do to support us. 

Why wasn’t much attention given to this issue after the pro-European government came into power during the Rose Revolution? 

Ukraine has opened the window of opportunities for us to start conversing about this issue. Before the war, the western conjecture was the following: even after Euromaidan in 2014, nobody wanted to see Russia as a threat, especially in the 90s when the world was celebrating the end of history. Even after the Rose Revolution in Georgia, the main demand from the west was to walk the fine line in regard to Russia. When the Georgian government abolished the peacekeeping status of Russia, the West warned us that Russia would perceive it as an escalation toward war. The Georgian government had to surrender to that demand. Today, the war in Ukraine changed everything, and we now have a chance to pursue our campaign, because the West is in a collective agreement that Russia is a threat. We have a chance in this shifted atmosphere. We now have to keep this issue alive, and I believe that justice will soon be restored. 

What is your overall end goal?

Our end goal is political recognition, restoring legal justice, and, overall, to educate future generations on who is our friend and who is our enemy, so we can be immune to Russian propaganda, because it is a country that committed genocide against us and an agreement has to be achieved on this matter. As George Orwell stated, “the most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” Therefore, it is very important that we keep our history and memory alive. 

*Some quotations were modified for clarity or length. This article features an interview, meaning the content presented does not necessarily align with the views of the GPI editorial staff.

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