Before Bucha in Ukraine, there was Abkhazia in Georgia

Thirty years after the war in Georgia’s breakaway territory of Abkhazia, victims are still waiting for justice.

Venera Meshveliani, 86, is an internally displaced woman from Akhaldaba, Abkhazia who witnessed her husband being killed during the conflict 30 years ago [Valeria Mongelli/Al Jazeera]

By Priyanka Shankar

Published On 5 Aug 2022

Tbilisi and Tskaltubo, Georgia – In 1993, Venera Meshveliani was one among more than 300 people who were held hostage by Russian soldiers for around three weeks in Abkhazia, a breakaway region in northwestern Georgia that borders Russia.

“I can never forget the sound of soldiers’ trampling feet and the foul, damp smell of the school building we were held hostage in. Everything I witnessed and experienced there was genocide,” said Meshveliani, an 86-year-old ethnic Georgian who hails from the Abkhazian village of Akhaldaba.

Most countries recognise Abkhazia as Georgia’s land but Russia and a few of its allies view the territory as a state of its own.

“Every night they would humiliate us by stepping over us. They would then take the younger girls outside and rape them,” Meshveliani told Al Jazeera from her one-bedroom apartment in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital.

People stand near apartment blocks hosting internally displaced Georgians from Abkhazia in Tskaltubo, Georgia, on July 21, 2022 [Valeria Mongelli/Al Jazeera]

“Many of the young girls raped were also my students. I used to be their mathematics teacher in the village before the war. How am I to forget the brutalities they had to experience?” she said, tearing up.

“There was one girl from the fifth grade who was bleeding all over and grabbed my feet and asked me if it was worth living. Just as I tried to convince her to pull through, another young girl was brought back to the school building after being raped and looked like she was going to faint from all the trauma.

“She begged for water and one short but stern-looking Russian soldier, whose face I can still remember, climbed up the windowpane above the young girl, urinated into her mouth and said: ‘Here’s your water. This is what Georgians deserve.’ It’s been more than 30 years but these criminals have not yet been prosecuted.”

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the conflict Georgia-Abkhazia conflict intensified with Abkhazians keen to establish autonomy from Georgia and protect their identity and culture.

“Before the war broke out, everything was very peaceful in our region. Our village Akhaldhaba was really beautiful and we were all rich but also hard working. But there were people in Abkhazia who were pro-Russian and they had begun planting seeds of hostility against Georgia before the war broke out,” Meshveliani said.

The Kremlin supported Abkhazia’s demands and tensions soared into what became the deadliest post-Soviet era conflict, which began in August 1992 and lasted for about a year, between ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia and separatist Abkhaz and Russian forces.

According to an unpublished report by Georgia’s prosecutor’s office, the conflict killed about 5,738 people.

More than 200,000 people, mostly ethnic Georgians, were displaced and they continue to live outside the region.

Venera Meshveliani leafs through the diary in which she has documented the war crimes that she witnessed during the 1992-1993 war in Abkhazia [Valeria Mongelli/Al Jazeera]

Abkhazia’s declared independence from Georgia in 1999 remains unrecognised by Tbilisi and frictions are ongoing.

Moscow recognised Abkhazia as independent after the 2008 Georgia-Russia war and signed an agreement with Abkhazia to take control of its frontiers in 2014.

But Meshveliani said geopolitical tensions have blocked a pathway that could see the war crimes of the early 90s addressed.

“My husband was killed right in front of my eyes. I also remember one house towards the edge of my village where the owners of the house had been killed and their heads had been cut off and kept on the dining table. Don’t such brutal monsters deserve to be punished?” she said.

A photo shows Venera Meshveliani’s husband at her home in Tbilisi, Georgia, on July 24, 2022. Meshveliani, whose husband was killed in front of her eyes [Valeria Mongelli/Al Jazeera]

‘The world has not yet termed these crimes as genocide’

According to Malkhaz Pataraia, the head of the Tbilisi-based platform Abkhaz Assembly, which advocates for displaced Georgians from Abkhazia and South Ossetia (another disputed region Georgia considers as its territory), “the aggressor” has not been identified correctly by the Georgian government and the West.

“Our government has been cautious of the Kremlin but right after the fall of the Soviet Union, the West also believed diplomatic dialogues would work with the Kremlin. This delayed severe punishments against war crime perpetrators,” Pataraia, who is also an internally displaced ethnic Georgian from Abkhazia, told Al Jazeera.

While the United Nations Observers’ Mission in Georgia, Human Rights Watch and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have recognised the crimes ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia had to face as “ethnic cleansing”, Pataraia is frustrated that the world has not yet termed these crimes as genocide.

Malkhaz Pataria, 59, head of the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz Assembly, spends his days advocating for Abkhazia victims [Valeria Mongelli/Al Jazeera]

“In three documents of the OSCE, the war crimes that occurred in Abkhazia are referred to as ethnic cleansing. As a lawyer, I can tell you that phrases like ‘ethnic cleansing’ are just politically correct terms to use because they have no normative grounds,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Only genocide has normative grounds because there are international conventions for victims of genocide and that guarantees justice to victims of war crimes.

“But after Russia’s full-blown invasion in Ukraine, many things have changed and shifted in the world. And people have left their motives for political correctness and they’ve started properly naming things for what they actually are. So this mi