Thursday, 23 July 2009

Paradise - Lost

To Vera and Otari Mirianashvili. I remember

I have a vivid memory - I walk uphill, up the steep stairs with my mother, picking pomegranates as we go, carrying bags from the market in the evening, then we turn right and open the gate... and the smell... Fig tree leaves in the evening, a very special smell... Or I thought it was fig tree leaves. I think that's what it smells like in the south (yes, silly us, we had exactly the same word for it as Norwegians do - no country, just south).

That memory came back when I first came to Naples, to visit my friend who lives halfway up Vesuvius. At that time, I haven't been further south than Prague in more that 15 years. I said, Oh my gosh, it smells like childhood!

I remember fragments. We used to walk this white seaside promenade. Streets were wide, so unlike dark and claustrophobic Riga. There were coffee shops, and grandpa used to sit with me for hours, drinking those tiny cups of turkish-style coffee made in hot sand, and talking to everyone he knew - they also happenned to drink coffee for hours - Greeks, Georgians, Abhazians... Yes, I actually remember the sand where the coffee was made. We drove from the airport, palm trees all around, and in the middle of the roundabout was a huge pig. Grazing. Or something. Well, it was no Four Seasons. We had to queue for drinking water on the junction of five streets (halfway up a mountain...), because the pressure of water pumps was not high enough. But then, there were grapes, and figs, and wine, and I played with cats and swam in the sea.

People visited all the time. One Russian man sold books. Grandma and grandpa had a library. Real LIBRARY. When I learned to read, I simply scanned the shelves in awe, picking books that I didn't even understand. They had a leopard skin on the couch, head intact. She was an artist, he - a retired military officer working in an enlistment office. She was the only person in our family with a gift for languages. She was Russian, he was Georgian. The white paradisial city where all lived happily ever after was Sukhumi.

There are moments I feel we are all gone with the wind of change. But while some things are just painful, this story is horrific in its brutality and meaningless suffering. There are no winners in wars. A war is a battle between God and devil for the souls of men. All of this is true. But wars also have faces. And when it comes down to faces, all wars are the same. The only difference is - some faces you know.

I remember leaving. I sat on a bus and I wept and I wept and I wept. Neither then nor now am I a person to weep in public. I must have been about nine, and while I couln't put my feelings into words yet, I think they were as real and authentic as anything I feel now. I was starting to understand that loving means hurting, that getting to know a place means saying good-bye to it, and the inevitability of this scared me. Every time the bus made another turn, which revealed more of the amazing mountain scenery, I wept even more. I saw mountain rivers, lakes, gorges and valleys, and I didn't want to leave. Years later, my mother mused whether I knew. I didn't, of course. But we never came back. We never will.

The war began in 1992. It was meaningless, like all wars are. It wasn't well covered, and somehow the the period 1992-1993 was rich in wars, all over the world. The Soviet Union collapsed, the communist money had to be divided, the land had to be divided... Then, it seemed unreal. This just couldn't happen. Would you imagine tanks in your favourite seaside resort? When peace came, everyone believed it would last. The children were ordered back to school under the threat of expulsion, the troops were disarmed, the families came back...

Sukhumi is now the capital of Abkhazia, a self-proclaimed republic that is not recognized by any country in the world but Russia. It was part of Georgia then. Actually, thanks to Stalin. The man (and he was Georgian...) loved to vacation there, he had a sense for beauty, remember, and beauty there was...

It was Georgian troops that were disarmed by September 1993, to prevent clashes between separatist Abkhazians and Georgian army, with Russia acting as a peace broker... Two weeks into the official school year, on September 16th, the war broke out again. This time, there was no hope. The people fled. They tried the planes, the planes were shot down. They tried the boats - most were sunk. The was a mountain pass, my aunt and cousin fled through it, as did many others. 500 died in the cold, most survived. Her parents stayed.

When the city was taken by Abkhazians... - what shall I say? People are dehumanized in war. Neighbours murdered their former neighbours, one nation had to eliminate the other, does it matter, does it have to be said? 20 000 people died. Do their stories deserve to be told? Raped, butchered, shot, burned, buried in their backyards, tortured to death... Russian women murdered for marrying Georgians. Do we need to know? A 70-year-old teacher of military education walked past a gas filling station (taken by Armenian militants) and saw a butchered body of a Georgian man hanging above, with a sign posted : Georgian meat for sale. He walked inside and blew up himself and all the miltants around.

I wonder if he knew grandpa. They must have been the same age. Am I being brutal? Do you think he was a terrorist?

The grandparents in Sukhumi died a natural death. I last spoke to grandma in 1997. My aunt did surprisingly well. She didn't come to a social security system, in fact she came to Moscow, a city where you can't even go to a doctor unless you have a registration stamped in your passport. But after surviving the mountain pass, they came to human warmth and love, their relatives, and open doors. She is now a Russian citizen and owns her second apartment in Moscow, no loan, no credit...

Most people who survived have learned this one thing. Something I remember learning too. Human life is precious. No matter our disagreements, no matter our colour, religion, backround, anger, hatred, desire, our past and present - human life is the most precious thing on this planet. Nothing is more precious than the life of another human being.

I met a guy from Sukhumi a few years ago in Oslo, he used the same route to escape. Well, there was just one route. He was sent back from Oslo to a city he hasn't seen for 10 years. It is still a beautiful place. But you don't want to live there anymore.

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