Ivor Pickett‘s photographs from ‘Between Enemy Lines’ tell a familiar story, one of innocent people left to struggle as organised criminals and political factions battle and compete for wealth, power and land. It’s a sobering and depressing tale that unfortunately is all too common in our modern world. And in the Gali district of Abkhazia it’s ongoing with no end in sight.
Gali is an impoverished and poorly neglected area in the disputed territory of Abkhazia, a partially recognised state controlled by a separatist government on the eastern coast of the Black Sea and the south-western flank of the Caucasus. The territory considers itself independent from Georgia – a status that’s recognised by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru and the partially recognised state of South Ossetia and the unrecognised Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh. However the Georgian government, United Nations and the majority of the world’s governments consider it part of Georgia’s territory. The reality, as is often the case, is quite different. Georgia is not in control of the state and they officially regard it as a republic called the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia whose government sits in exile in Tbilisi.
Like many conflict areas in Eastern Europe this political conundrum was born after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. After the breakup of the Eastern bloc in the early 1990’s ethnic tensions grew between the Abkhaz and Georgians over Georgia’s moves towards independence. This led to the 1992 – 1993 War in Abkhazia that resulted in a Georgian military defeat, de facto independence of Abkhazia and the mass exodus and ethnic cleansing of the Georgian population from Abkhazia. This conflict continues to simmer despite a ceasefire and years of negotiations and to this day remains unresolved. In this volatile situation innocent people are persecuted and left to die.
These photographs by Pickett take us into Gali and tell us the story of the Mingrelian people, whose culture goes back thousands of years, a people who have their own language, traditions and have long worked the land in this part of the Caucasus. These days they are trapped between Georgia and Abkhazia, their goods – primarily oranges, tea and hazelnuts – are heavily taxed when they cross over the border while the local markets are controlled by the local mafia who impose strict tariffs on their products. This economic asphyxiation has left them impoverished and caught in a limbo between two states, two antagonists and a preying criminal class who always thrive in war torn situations. It’s a horrendously sad situation with no end in sight. Yet they go on. Life goes on. And they make the best of what they have. And it is this story that Pickett tells so well. One of pride, strength and intent.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas it’s important that we think of these people, and many like them across the world, who are suffering because of the actions of others. We have much to be thankful for. We must not forget.