Roma in Abkhazia
3 April 1999
Abkhazia, an autonomous region of Georgia, is situated between the eastern shores of the Black Sea and Caucasus mountains. More than half a decade has passed since the military conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia ended. Since then, the breakaway region of Abkhazia has been under blockade by Georgia and Russia. Abkhazia today is a place of inter-ethnic armed conflicts, which have affected the lives of a whole range of ethnic groups, among them Roma. The thirteen-month civil war which followed the proclamation of independence by Abkhazia in 1992 disrupted the lives of many Roma and forced a number of Roma to migrate to other places.
Roma living in Sukhum, the capital city of Abkhazia, were particularly affected by the conflict. The area of the city most directly involved in the conflict during the war was one in which several Romani communities lived. Over the course of the war, the Romani population of Sukhum decreased from one of the thriving centres of Romani life in the Black Sea region to a few hundred people. Roma began abandoning the city during the first days of the war. During the war, Georgian military authorities harassed Romani men by trying to force them to join the military forces. Those Roma who resisted were beaten and threatened that if they did not fight for Georgia, their families would be killed. Despite these threats, Roma refused en masse. The only choice for many of them was to flee their homes. Those Romani families who stayed allegedly suffered robberies and violence committed by Georgian soldiers. Roma reported that soldiers forcefully entered their houses and demanded money and gold. These acts were accompanied by instances of humiliation and beating. Mr Bambur, the leader of the Romani community in Sukhum, reportedly died following torture after military authorities continuously harassed him, demanding bribes.
According to Mr Kazachenko, a witness, Georgian soldiers shot dead two Romani girls - aged 15 and 17 - and a 20-year-old Romani man in public. It is not known if the soldiers involved in the incident were ever disciplined. Mr Kazachenko also reported that on one day in December 1992, soldiers forced approximately fifty Romani adults and children to gather into a group and then drove them to an abandoned building. After forcing them inside, the soldiers pointed machine guns at them and threatened them. The soldiers kept the group in the building and demanded gold, while threatening to set the building on fire. The Romani hostages only managed to escape after their captors became incapacitated from drug use.
Discrimination also accompanied the war. Food - especially bread - was sold preferentially to ethnic Abkhazians. Roma were often chased away from bread queues. Lack of food and medicine still creates significant tensions among the population. Roma also reported instances of discrimination by the staff of the local Red Cross office.
Before the war many Romani children went to school; most of these have now stopped attending in order to help their families earn money. Their fathers, like Abkhazian men, are unable to go to Russia because of a Russian policy restricting entry to males between 16 and 60 years of age. As a result, young boys go in their place. The Roma of Abkhazia have come from the war with heavy physical, moral and material losses. The war and post-war crisis have produced a state of depression and apathy among many Roma of Abkhazia and many Roma continue to flee the area.