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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Catching Some Sun Inside a War Zone

ReutersRussian tourists lolling about on a sun-dappled beach in the resort town of Gagra in June. The town is in the breakaway region of Abkhazia in Georgia.
SUKHUMI, Georgia — Russian tourists will crowd the beaches of Abkhazia all summer. Officially, they are vacationing in a war zone, but where else can they find such a cheap week in the sun?

"This is our second year, we like it here. There isn't even the smell of war any more," said Alexander Grigoryev, a 32-year-old who made the 36-hour train journey from the Volga region to splash around in the warm waters of the Black Sea.

"We have sensed nothing but friendliness," he said. "We are renting an apartment with a little sauna and a little pool."

This wedge of a self-declared state, squeezed between the Caucasus and the sea, is not all sun and sand.

For its 200,000 residents, the scars — physical, mental and financial — of their 1992-93 war for independence from Georgia may be healing, but they are still sore.

Once the Soviet Union's most prestigious piece of real estate, Abkhazia is now sadly reduced. Half its population fled the war as refugees, its fancy hotels stand roofless and whole villages are deserted and pitted with bullet holes.

It is legally a part of Georgia, but has a president, economy, parliament and laws of its own.

Abkhaz residents say they will fight the Georgians again if they have to, and that they will never agree to rejoin the Caucasus nation, as hoped by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

"The war threw us back 30 years. Abkhazia was always a place where people lived well, lived richly as friends. But what happened happened, and it was not our fault but Georgia's fault," regional leader Sergei Bagapsh said. "If you can find one Abkhaz today, anyone, just one person who says he is ready to live with Georgia, then I am ready to take back what I have said."

With the Georgian border effectively closed, Abkhaz foreign ties are focused on the 100-meter crossing with Russia, where traders push carts of onions and nuts through a makeshift checkpoint that has taken on a permanent air.

Much to Georgia's irritation, Russia opened the border to non-locals in April, although the border guards seemed unsure what to do when this correspondent arrived.

After a 45-minute wait, the time it took for one border guard to give an in-depth lecture on Abkhazia's history and its right to independence from Georgia, they decided foreigners could after all be admitted into the unrecognized state.

The Abkhaz controls were more relaxed. Three unshaven men in camouflage briefly looked up from a televised soccer game to scribble passport details in a book then returned to the sofa.

Thomas Peter / Reuters

An image of an icon in the Novy Afon monastery drawing a stream of tourists.

Inside Abkhazia, the war's scars become more visible the closer you get to the capital, Sukhumi, where as many as half the houses are gutted and whole apartment blocks stand empty, their windows staring like empty eye sockets at the clear blue sky.

And these are just the visible signs of the war. Mines left by both sides have killed or injured almost 700 people since 1992, according to the Halo Trust, a British demining charity.

It said its sappers were close to finishing their demining of Abkhazia, but they showed the complexity of their remaining work at a monastery outside Sukhumi.

Georgian forces had mined the slopes above the holy site, where legend says the head of John the Baptist was once kept safe, to stop Abkhaz guerrillas from descending, and left behind no maps when they retreated.

"Every year more and more pilgrims are coming here, so we need to do as much as we can to clear this area," said Garen Elbakyan, head of the Halo Trust's demining team, as he pointed out the red-and-white-topped sticks that mark the edge of the cleared area above the church of St. John Chrysostom.

"Only yesterday two women went out at night and got lost in the forest. Luckily, they found our markers and managed to follow them down."

Halo's progress in clearing the debris of war is mirrored in other areas. New buildings are finally going up in Sukhumi, and the road from Russia was receiving a new surface when this correspondent traveled along it.

A million Russian tourists visited last year, and officials hope still more will come this year — pumping money into a local budget that doubled this year to $35 million.

Abkhazia's foreign ties are still only with Russia, but locals hope the opening of the border will allow visits from the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Abkhaz in Turkey — descendants of people who fled Russia's Caucasus wars in the 19th century.

"Many people want to come; we know there are lots of them but it is not easy to get here. To come for a week is easy, but to come to work is very hard," said Sener Gogua, an ethnic Abkhaz from Turkey who now lives in Sukhumi.

He trades timber, scrap and other products to Turkey, but says the Georgian blockade on sea trade means Abkhaz businessmen are forced to rely on Russia, cementing ties with a state that has already given residents passports and pays their pensions.

"The biggest problem for us now is the risk. There could be hundreds of times more money invested. Imagine you have a boat worth a million dollars, and the Georgians confiscate it. Who wants to take this risk?" he said.