Zugdidi, 7 AM. I finally find shelter from the rain which is flooding the city after jumping on an overcrowded "marshrutka", heading to “the border”. This word sound quite strange in my mind and I wonder how it may sound to a Georgian’s hear. This border I’m talking about is the one which separates proper Georgia from the breakaway region of Abkhazia, a “lost paradise” on the shores of the Black Sea, which has turned into a grey zone on the world’s map. This border is not officially recognized but still, it generates effects. I’ve spent one month in Tbilisi listening to the dramatic stories of the Georgians who were forced to flee this land more than twenty years ago. Now that I’m so close to Abkhazia I’m almost feeling the same nostalgia that I felt in their words, and in the words of other Georgians who are not allowed to go there anymore. Since the end of the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict, the only ones who have the “chance” of crossing the border are the Georgians who were allowed to resettle in the Gali district, in Abkhazia’s southernmost part. These returnees are the people who accompany me during my ride from Zugdidi to the border. Inside the marshrutka there are about 15 persons, each of them surrounded by plastic bags stuffed with food, toys, clothes… Someone is carrying a small chair which eventually becomes my seat. Some of the people speak Georgian, others Mingrelian, others are just silent. I feel quite uncomfortable looking at their weary faces. There is a woman in front of me with a child sitting on her knees, he shouldn’t be older than 8. I wonder whether this early-morning trip is part of their daily routine. Since 1994, most of these people spend their lives travelling back and forth across the boundary line, although their freedom of movement is constantly put at risk by restrictions imposed from the Abkhazian authorities. But they need to cross the border frequently and for the most diverse reasons: to buy medicines that they don’t find in Gali, to collect the monthly allowances provided to IDPs by the Georgian state, which can only be obtained on the uncontested territory of Georgia, to visit their relatives who are not allowed to go on the Abkhazian territory, or to go to schools where they have the possibility of studying in their native language. Often these people decide to live in Zugdidi or in other towns in Georgia proper, because they don’t feel safe on Abkhazian territory. They come back to the Gali district only from time to time, to look after their houses and lands.
After a 20-minutes ride the "marshutka" suddenly stops in the middle of nowhere. The driver shuts down the engine but nobody moves. I see a man looking nervously at his watch and I understand that we arrived too early: the checkpoints will only open in 40 minutes, at 8 AM. The woman in front of me opens her bag and takes out a pair of shoes. Very calmly she changes shoes, probably to be better equipped for the rain. Her son is getting nervous, so she tries to distract him with some piece of cake. Finally it’s 8 o’clock and people start stepping out of the marshrutka. The first controls on the Georgian side are quite fast: a policeman gives a distracted, indifferent glance at my passport and asks whether I have the clearance letter to enter the Abkhazian territory. It’s in my pocket. The procedure to obtain it was easier than I expected: you download a form from the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Abkhazia, fill it in, and in five days you receive by e-mail a clearance letter. No need of a hotel reservation, no need of having a reference person in Abkhazia.
Paradoxically, applying for a visa to Azerbaijan was far more complicated than that. Now, the first border that I have to cross is the only natural one: the Enguri river, which physically separates the uncontested territory of Georgia from Abkhazia. Because of the unstoppable rain, the bridge is completely flooded, so I have to get on a horse carriage to reach the other side. The bravest men and women decide to walk anyway, zigzagging to avoid the pools of water or swinging carefully upon the edge of the sidewalk. The same people who were in the marshrutka are already on the carriage, including the woman and her son. After ten minutes of bumping, rocking and floods all around when I feel like sitting on a ferry boat in a nightmarish Venice, we arrive on the other side of the bridge, at the Russian checkpoint. Barbed wire surrounds the area, while soldiers walk all around and people stand in line in two different corridors, one for those who enter and the other for those who exit. It sadly reminds me of some scenes I only saw in documentary movies about Palestine. Almost all Georgians from the marshrutka pass the first control immediately: in their hands they hold blue Abkhazian passports. I say almost all, because the woman and her kid seem to have problems: an Abkhazian customs officer is explaining her in Russian that she must have an original birth certificate for her child, but she only has a copy. He can’t let her cross the border. The woman tries to call someone on the phone, holding the hand of her son who seem to be freezing, looking desperate and helpless. The shoes she put on just a few minutes earlier in the marshrutka are already full of water and mud. The officer requests her to move away from the checkpoint and calls a carriage driver to take her back to the other side of the bridge. She’ll have to make the whole trip back to Zugdidi in order to get the paper she needs. I witness this sad scene while I wait for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to call back and give its final authorization for me to enter Abkhazia. Two hours seem to last for ages, when you’re stuck at a checkpoint under the pouring rain, hoping that you won’t be refused entrance. Especially when you come from Schengen’s comfort zone. After a while the same official who just sent away the lady with the kid starts chatting friendly with me: he’s curious about the current political situation in Italy and, of course, about Silvio. I’m not even surprised. Then he finally hands my passport back to me and I can step into the right-side corridor where people are standing in line, waiting for the Russian officials to check their identity and ask the usual questions.
“What have you been doing in Russia?” – Studying. “Where?” – Moscow, MGU. “Why are you going to Abkhazia?” – For… tourism. “Where will you be staying?” – Sukhum... I hesitate a bit in pronouncing the name of the city: should I say “Sukhumi” as in Georgian, or “Sukhum” as in Abkhazian? Anyway the man seems satisfied with my answers and lets me pass. Now the worst is over: I’m finally on the territory of Abkhazia. While I was standing in the line this border had seemed so concrete to me that I was almost expecting a change of scenery after crossing it. I’m almost surprised to notice that the monochrome sky and the pouring rain are exactly the same on both sides. “Don’t forget to go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sukhum and pay for the visa within 2 days, or you’ll have problems in leaving the country” the official adds. Bureaucracy is never over.
Once in Sukhumi, in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs I’ll be asked whether I’m a journalist, before being finally given the visa, a small sheet of paper decorated with the Abkhazian flag: green-and-white stripes and a canton with an open right hand surrounded by seven stars on a red field. The open hand is supposed to mean “Hello to friends and stop to enemies”. Two days later, I’ll be at the checkpoint once again, on the right-side corridor to leave Abkhazia, and the customs officer will withdraw the visa from my passport. It’s not allowed to keep it even as a souvenir. I’m quite disappointed: after having travelled for such a long way and waited for endless border controls in stressful conditions, my trip to Abkhazia will have left no trace in my passport. Indeed, one may say that I’ve never left Georgia, nor crossed any border. Which is not completely untrue. As if Sukhumi’s empty streets and dilapidated buildings hadn’t left me shattered enough, after departure I’ll realize that these shifting dimensions of the border have made my whole trip to Abkhazia even more surreal than it already was.