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Constant escape – how women live in Khurcha, near the occupation line

The war in Abkhazia began in August 1992 and lasted for 13 months. By the end of the war, Georgia had 300,000 internally displaced people. Today, Abkhazia is recognized as occupied and the Russian occupation army is stationed there. The people living on both sides of the de facto dividing line are friends and relatives, but now they cannot meet or rarely manage to see each other, as Eliso Shamatava explains through her experiences.

“Eighty-five families live in the village of Khurcha. At least one person from almost each household has emigrated. My son is also gone. He took a gap year at the university and left to work in Poland. We, women living along the dividing line, work. But when we want to sell produce at the Zugdidi market, we are not allowed to take it with us on the municipal bus. We have to hire a taxi. This is how we live here,” says 52-year-old Eliso Shamatava from Khurcha in Georgia, who tells us about the specifics of living along the administrative boundary line.

April 11, 2024 - Manana Kveliashvili - Issue 3 2024MagazineStories and ideas

A small bridge over the Enguri river connecting the villages of Koki and Khurcha. There are only 85 households left in Khurcha, and no family is without at least one member who has emigrated. Photo: Manana Kveliashvili

Shamatava is originally from the village of Okumi, Gali District, in occupied Abkhazia. She was 19 years old when she became an internally displaced person. Later she started a family and settled in Khurcha. Here, Eliso tells her life story, which she describes as a story of constant running, fighting and refusing to give up.


I settled in Khurcha in 1997. I started a family. I had not been there long when the events of May 1998 took place in Gali [a military clash between Abkhazian soldiers and Georgian rebels that lasted for six days]. I was at home when the shooting started. My daughter, Mariam, was seven months old. I was told that the Russians were coming and I had to take my daughter and run away. I quickly picked up the baby, grabbed some diapers and ran towards the Enguri river.

Cars were rushing and cattle were running. A man was walking with his bicycle in front of me. The noise was terrible. Cattle were howling. Suddenly, the man dropped his bicycle, screamed, and ran towards the bushes. It was so noisy I couldn’t understand what was happening. I looked back and saw a military truck approaching, full of armed people. I was there with my baby – I pressed her against my belly and hid in a bush. “Even if they shoot me, the child will survive” I thought. The car passed by without shooting. This made me lose all my strength. I could not pick up the baby anymore. I barely got up and saw that my child was bleeding.

I was holding her by her t-shirt. I could feel that she was slipping out of my hands. The baby was gripping me with her bloody hands. I started walking slowly towards the bridge and I could feel myself losing strength. Suddenly I saw a boy. He told me he would take the child to help so I could cross the bridge. I was walking and thinking about who he was, an unknown person holding my daughter. I had heard that a bullet could hit you without you even feeling it. I was thinking that me and the child were probably shot. I barely managed to cross the river. I was looking for my child. Then I found her and I sat down. Soon some old ladies came. They told me that I had to somehow brace up and pick up my baby, because she was crying. I looked at the child and the blood was gone. Apparently, there were thorns in the bushes where I was hiding. It turns out a thorn caught her ear and drew a lot of blood. She also scratched herself. The ladies cleaned her up. I will remember this moment until the day I die, the fear I felt. Fear can erode one’s strength to the point they can’t stand on their feet.

This experience affected us physically and psychologically. It was very hard. I am trying to forget this, for the sake of my family and my children, but it is very hard when you remember all of this. I have three children and one grandchild. The children are now grown-up and they recall that they were the most scared when their mum turned pale. I used to turn pale whenever I would get angry. I was probably stressed. The simplest things would make me turn pale. We have never received any kind of psychological help. Unsurprisingly, the kids raised by the parents of those times were a little aggressive. I could restrain myself but not many people could. They started families, but the simplest things would make them angry. A mother’s anger tends to be directed towards the children. We probably needed the help of a psychologist the most. They say men and women are equal in raising children, even in the time of war. They are not. It is a lie. It is now that young mothers and fathers take care of their children equally, but that is not the case everywhere.

Women and men are not equal, from the very beginning a woman has been responsible for everything. I once heard that if an unwise man marries a brave and intelligent woman, they will surely have smart children. Why? Because everything is passed down from the maternal line. The father is a provider; the mother is everything else. Both in the family and at work. A woman is everything in the family. In my case, I was always with the children. Whatever it was. Their father was providing for the family. That’s it. Everything else was up to me. What does it mean to raise a child during a war? I was buying overalls all the time. The reasoning? If we needed to escape, we wouldn’t need to take a lot of clothes. Diapers and overalls. These were the main items. If I suddenly found myself on the streets, I would still have my child protected. When my children grew up, I started donating their clothes and overalls that were never-ending. I gave away so many…

The war that took away our youth

I am originally from the village of Okumi in the Gali District. During the war, we lived in the city of Gali. I remember everything. It is truly disheartening that exactly when we should have been choosing our life paths, determining our futures, we found ourselves fighting for our existence. Fighting for existence was the most important thing. And the dream of studying, education, choosing life just remained a dream for young people of our age. When we started families, we went straight to being responsible adults. Our lives were wasted away trying to justify the responsibilities. The family burden should not bring shame, you should raise your children well and so on.

Our childhood ended suddenly. The period of youth has been erased from our lives. We missed out on our youth. It is very disheartening. All the young people of my generation … someone managed to do something, but it was a handful of people who were lucky. For that period, very few were lucky. Most of the people I knew and those who have been around me, without exception, went straight from childhood to adult responsibilities.

The yearning of that period sometimes comes back to us even now – contemplating what could have been. But back then the struggle for survival overshadowed everything. I had parents, siblings and family. When you are left without a roof over your head, without anything, you forget about everything else. You could have the right path right in front of you and not notice it. That is what happened to my generation. My generation could have had their path in front of them, they could have done something with their lives, but they were preoccupied with survival and they missed out on their youth.

It is difficult to talk about that period. Even now, euphoria and some kind of heat comes back to me, making it very difficult for me to remember. When the war started, I was in Gali. My mother had a car, she was a proactive woman, a civil servant. She came home and said that the war had begun. We were children, the war was somewhere far away – in Africa or somewhere near Fidel Castro. Now it was here.

The fact that an Abkhazian could shoot you was incomprehensible. We all got into the car and drove to the centre of Gali. It was chaotic. People were sitting in the buses. Someone said Abkhazians had already reached the Ghalidzga river and were exchanging fire. Looking back now, I think how naïve people were. No one expected Abkhazians to shoot. We went to Ghalidzga. Columns of cars moved along. When we arrived, there were two buses and a big car in front of us. Suddenly the shooting started. The headlights of the buses lit up the bridge. Suddenly we saw two boys running.

One squinted and suddenly something scattered like dust. He started screaming – they killed him. My mother covered my eyes, pushed me into the car, turned it around and drove three to four kilometres away from that place. Nuri Shamatava and Tutuli Ekhvaia – these were the ones who were killed that day. Their bodies were laid to rest in the centre of Gali. I was a kid, 18 or 19 years old. I cannot describe that night. I remember and that’s it. Something terrible began there. I will never forget that night.

Life in Khurcha, along the dividing line

We are farmers. My house is a little far from the dividing line [which de facto runs between Abkhazia and Georgia], but I have relatives who live by the water. Their routine is about safeguarding their surroundings, making sure that few family members are on the other side. Only on this side is protection. The goal is to bring everything here, away from the dividing line. Children should be on the front side, playing there. The bedroom should be on the front side. At the back side, which often borders the dividing line, there could be a pantry or something more practical. The side with the dividing line is now split, blocked and sealed. This is our daily concern. We work very hard harvesting vegetables, raising cattle, poultry … that is how we survive. I think our women are the toughest, because they are mobilized in every way. They do not even show the stress they have inside. It requires a lot of talent to hide this.

We try to buy as little as possible. We mainly buy products that are not available here, such as detergent or sugar. Almost everything we have can be grown. The worst thing is that if one of our cattle goes beyond the administrative line, that’s it, our livelihood is lost. You cannot get it back. [The Russian border guards will arrest you if you try].

Our neighbour lost two cows. She depended upon them, she used to sell cheese. A whole year’s work and you lose everything. I’m away from the dividing line and herd my cows on the other side. Those who live right next to the line have to get up early in the morning, drive their cows three or four kilometres away, and follow them around. When they make sure that the cows are safe, they leave. In the evening they have to walk four or five kilometres again to get their cattle back and make sure they did not end up on the Abkhazian side. That is also hard work.

Generally speaking, it is difficult to live in the village, and it is doubly difficult to work while at the same time thinking about your own safety. Then spending three to four hours thinking about where your cows are. That’s stressful. That’s why I say that our women are tough. Despite all the stress. You may come to their family and find them cheerful. They invite you in, they host you. You won’t even notice how much work they’re doing and how much stress they are under.

We have a new municipal bus, a rural bus for people to go to the city. We usually take something with us to sell there, but it is not allowed to carry extra luggage on the bus. Technically we are not allowed to take anything to the market to sell by municipal bus. We are only allowed to take a small bag that fits under the seat. Drivers turn a blind eye to one or two sacks. They are afraid of being fined, but they don’t say anything. If there is a little more, they start pleading – please, don’t do this to me! But everyone goes to the market.

We approached the municipality about this many times. Their answer was that this is municipal transport; it is for people. And it drives from the centre of the village. It does not go throughout the village. People have to walk a long way to get to the centre of the village. The bus has a schedule. Only one or two days a week it drives through the village districts. Sometimes it cannot enter some parts because there is no road. The bus often breaks down – apparently.

Little Khurcha in Italy

There are 85 households in Khurcha. There is no family without at least one member who has emigrated. There are probably five or six families who are in internal emigration. The rest have all gone abroad. Our women are in Italy. Sometimes we joke that they have founded a small Khurcha over there. When they have a day off, they get together and send pictures, you can see that the whole village is there. It is such a big picture, there is an entire army of women. They work there and support their families.

The men are in Poland or go to the Czech Republic in three-month intervals. The villagers help each other to get there. First one left, then he took the other one with him and so on. The same happened with the women. All of them are relatives, neighbours and they’ve helped each other to get there. At first, I was very surprised, how could they do it?! They left their children here with their parents and left. Little by little they made ends meet. Now they have their feet on the ground, but it is still difficult. When they come to visit, they can’t manage to do everything during their stay. They are like a dog on a leash. They want to go everywhere, visit everyone, see everyone.

My son is in Poland. He is a student. He used to study international relations. When he finished the first year, he took a gap year and left. He is helping us from there. He could not work here. It was very difficult for us. When his father died, my brother-in-law started helping us. He lived in Ukraine, but it became difficult for him as well, and my son had to leave. It is very sad that he is wasting his youth. He should be having fun, but instead he is working and supporting us. It is very hard for me, but I don’t show this to him. I might seem selfish, but sometimes I think that I would prefer him to lose a year or two rather than being burdened with something for the rest of his life. He is a young boy and he will cope with that. His father died and I cannot support him financially.

When someone, who is trapped to be killed, escapes, reaches a safe place, calms down and then stops – this is what I imagined when I heard your question. I am quiet now, but all my life I was ready to run away. All my life I was striving for something, going somewhere, trying to start.

This text was published as part of the special competition of the Women Reporters Academy – a project which brings together female journalists and media workers from Eastern Europe.

Manana Kveliashvili is a documentary filmmaker and journalist based in Georgia, boasting nearly two decades of experience in her field. Before becoming part of the Batumeli Netgazeti team in 2012, she collaborated with various local media organizations. Kveliashvili’s work is dedicated to capturing real stories through powerful documentaries and addressing pressing social issues including gender equality, marginalized minority groups, women’s labour, environmental concerns, poverty and the enduring legacy of Soviet repression in Georgia.

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