Visitors Grow Restless at Abkhaz Vacation Towns

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As the speedboat accelerated into the bay, the gaudy parachute that was tied to it billowed open, lifting two laughing vacationers into the azure skies. In Gagra, a laid-back resort on Abkhazia's Black Sea coast that caters to tourists from nearby Russia, it looked like just another summer season. The beachfront restaurants were serving up pelmeni, solyanka and overpriced Baltika beer, while salespeople in stalls hawked souvenir trinkets and postcards of Abkhazia's monuments and monasteries.

But this was not just another summer season. A couple of weeks earlier, two explosions in Gagra had injured six people and created a mood of trepidation that convinced many tourists to stay away. Further up the coast in Sukhumi, the Abkhaz capital, where two more bombs went off the day after the Gagra blasts, the cafes were half-empty and local people were worrying whether they would make enough money to get them through the winter months.

It remains unclear who was responsible for the explosions and what their motives might have been. Amid escalating tensions and speculation about a return to armed conflict in Abkhazia, 15 years after the war between the Abkhaz secessionists and the Georgian government ended, the lack of any definitive explanation for the violence seemed to make people even more uneasy. "We are all really worried because we already know what war is," said a woman taking refuge from the fierce afternoon humidity in a park on Sukhumi's seaside promenade. "I hope that the situation will be resolved. I hope that common sense will prevail."

Further north, in the war-ravaged town of Gali, there are no tourists at all, and almost every visitor is driving a white United Nations 4x4 or a Russian army vehicle. Outsiders are closely scrutinized -- especially after yet another unexplained explosion this month, this time in the center of Gali, left four people dead.

After the blast, the secessionist authorities closed the de facto border with Georgia, cutting off a lifeline for small-time traders and for people with relatives on both sides of the conflict zone. According to a local militiaman, an informal curfew was also in force, starting at nightfall.

There are no picturesque scenes for holiday snapshots in Gali, just the ruins of bombed-out houses, abandoned by families who fled during the war. In the center of the town stands a statue of a lion, which was blown up years ago, a symbolic victim of a conflict with no end in sight. All that's left of the wounded beast is its paws, clinging forlornly to a plinth -- an image that's not available on any picture postcard.

Matthew Collin is a journalist in Tbilisi.