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How Abkhaz Woman Saved Georgian People from Being Shot

Inga Takalandze, Otobaia

Abkhaz population is minority in the village of Otobaia in Gali district. However, they do not feel themselves different on ethnic grounds. They live like other villagers and have common problems. In the case of necessity, they support their Georgian neighbors.

A respondent of the Human Rights Center Neli Akhuba saved local Georgian people from being shot during the armed conflict in 1990s. She said the number of mixed Georgian-Abkhazian marriages has increased in Gali district recently. Optimists think the mixed marriages will support restoration of frozen relationships.

76-year-old Neli Akhuba has lived in Otobaia for 54 years. Her Georgian husband died 30 years ago; they had many children and after the death of her husband she had to keep the family alone. She eagerly agreed to give an interview to us and did not ask to hide her name either; she turned up a very nice interlocutor.

-How did you turn up in a Georgian village of Otobaia?

-I learned in Sokhumi. A guy liked my best friend and my future husband was the friend of the guy. When I first saw him, I did not pay attention to him; he was an ordinary tall boy. Then, we accidentally met each other again and finally we got married.

- How did the neighbors receive you when you got married and arrived here?

-Everybody met me very warmly; by the way when my relatives were visiting me, they always asked whether anybody annoyed me. When they saw we had perfect relationship they asked me how I made those people love me.

-As far as I know, you worked at the local school?

-Yes I did. I graduated from Sokhumi University; took my diploma and then got married; we moved here in 1956. Next year, I was offered to work at the local school and I agreed. I was young. Old generation worked at the school and they assisted me; they taught me how to behave at school. Everybody was very kind to me. Oneri Zantaria was the school director then; he was perfect person. I worked in the school from 1957 till the war in Abkhazia in 1993. I am proud of those 36 years. I taught Russian language and literature. During the war we moved to Orsantia. Since then I have not worked at all.

-Do your former pupils visit you or get in touch with you?

-Nowadays, it is very difficult for people to keep in touch. Many of my former pupils have good jobs now and I am proud of them. I am glad that they have achieved some success in their lives. Lately I needed operation on my gall-bladder and my former pupil Valeri Petelava operated me on. When I first went to school, I taught the 5th form and Valeri was pupil in it. Their generation was perfect people.

-What do you remember from the war?

-I did not stay in Orsantia for a long time. My mother-in-law was alone at home. When we were in Orsantia, we heard houses were burnt in Otobaia every day. I was afraid of my house. My mother-in-law was an old woman and she could not walk. I was afraid she could be burnt in the house. She did not leave the house; she said she would die in the house which was built by her son. My husband was already dead by that time. He died in 1972. We stayed in Orsantia for five days. I cried every day and on the fifth day we went to Otobaia. I did not know my mother-in-law was alive or dead. When I approached the Ostsantia Bridge it was exploded and a lot of people were standing there. My daughter arrived from Zugdidi to warn me against going to Otobaia. She said she would accompany me there and would be killed together with me. I calmed her down and promised not to go anywhere; she went to Zugdidi but next day I went to Otobaia.”

“Here I saw disaster. Everything was thrown out of the house; the mattresses were scattered in the yard. They had an HQ in my house. The door was locked. Our house was not burnt then. I called my mother-in-law but nobody replied. I thought she was killed and her body was in the building. I walked round the house and hear her voice from the kitchen - “Who are you?” She was frying eggs for herself. We embraced each other and started crying. I promised to stay with her and not to leave her alone. Before the war finished we were together in the house. People were killed everywhere. Those, who were not killed, were kidnapped. I assisted everybody if I could. I urged Abkhaz people not to kill anybody. One day they captured Murman Gabelia and Kako Shengelia. We are not neighbors but everybody knew them as honest and hard-working people in the village. The Abkhaz people were following them with automatic guns on the central road. My cousin had arrived from Tkvarcheli. He told me they were going to kill those people. He did not want them to be killed and asked me if I knew them. When I saw them I said they were my neighbors, honest people and never did any harm to anybody. I asked them to let them go. One soldier told me they would kill at least one of them on the bank of Enguri River. Since I could not convince them, finally I told the Abkhaz people: “Please respect my dinner.” I should not have told similar thing to my former guests but I had no way out. When they used to come to our house, we served them with food. After my words they let the men go – they respected the ancient Caucasian tradition of hospitality. There were many other occasions when I assisted completely strange Georgian people who were captured by Abkhaz people and they were going to kill them. I used to tell Abkhaz people that I knew them, they were good people and they let them go. I assisted innocent people as I could.

-Did you leave the house during the second war in 1998?

-Yes, we sheltered the house of my god-son in Orsantia village. My house was burnt and as soon as I learned about it, I went home. When I arrived the smoke was coming from the walls. Then I started everything from the beginning. My neighbors had similar or worse problems but we assisted each other. My children helped me; we managed to harvest nuts and did not leave the house. My colleagues asked me to return to school and continue working but I refused. I was already old woman and could not work at school.

-Do you think, Georgian and Abkhaz peoples will reconcile?

-They should reconcile, of course. We cannot continue like that. Abkhaz people have already realized that they should not have had conflict with Georgian people.

-The Human Rights Center launched a “Sorry Campaign”. Several Georgian people apologize to Abkhaz people for not having prevented the war and bloodshed. What do you think about it?

-I did not know that people were apologizing to each other nowadays. It might be correct way. Everybody lost relatives in this war but we should accept apology and think of reconciliation. It cannot continue like that for a long time. I always tell young people and will tell them in future too – we should reconcile.

5 Jul. '10

5 Jul. '10