“For 70 years you couldn’t even look in that direction” - the tragedy that divided villages between Turkey and Georgia
October 13, 2021 will mark exactly 100 years since a document was signed at the residence of the vali (local authority) in the city of Kars, according to which new borders were established between the Soviet Union and Turkey.
In accordance with this treaty, Turkey transferred part of Adjara, with its largest city being Batumi, to the Soviet Union, receiving Kars, Artvin, and Ardahan from the Soviet Union in return.
This happened when the Red Army was already here after the occupation of Georgia. The democratic government of Georgia was in exile, and the occupational regime had been approved of within the country.
After the Treaty of Kars was signed, Machakhela Gorge was divided into two parts: the upper part of the gorge along with its six villages (the city of Borchkha being the regional center) was moved to Turkey, while the lower part of the gorge remained in Georgia.
During the Soviet period, this territory became a place where socialist and capitalist worlds converged, and was quite naturally placed under strict control. With the exception of border guards and the local population who had special permits, almost no one could go there. The border divided families, and forever separated brothers, sisters, parents, children, and relatives.
Journalist Natia Tavdgiridze visited the Georgian and Turkish villages of Machakhela Gorge, and listened to a number of interesting stories. This story was originally published in 2017 and has been renewed on the occasion of the 100th anniversary.
Kvemo (Lower) Machakhela – Georgia
The Kvemo Machakhela Gorge is located at an altitude of 600 metres above sea level, and enters the Khelvachauri district. It consists of more than ten villages, with 722 households. Here, almost all of the families make ends meet through livestock and beekeeping.
David Kakhidze, 78 years old:
“This house is probably about one hundred and fifty years old. Four generations have been raised in it. My grandfather built it. The construction materials were my mother’s dowry. That’s my mom in the photo on wall. She lived in a nearby village before she got married. She was from a well-to-do family. Everything needed to build the house was sent from that village.”
“My family suffered very much during the Russo-Turkish war. A hundred years ago, Machakhela Gorge was huge. Gendarmes [a military group] and the border didn’t create obstacles in communication. But after the Russo-Turkish war, the border was closed. When the war ended, the Russian army was stationed in Achariszkali, and the Turkish troops in Borchkha. The territory between them was free, and then it was divided. This is what the Treaty of Kars brought.
“When the border was established, my mother was asking whether she should stay, or go to her family? What was she to do? On the other side are her parents, brothers, and sisters. But how could she leave five children behind? And then the border was closed tightly. So, my mother died without seeing her closest relatives again.
“To this day, Georgian traditions have not been forgotten in the Turkish part of Machakhela Gorge. And houses there are built in the same way as the Georgian part. Just as on the Georgian side, the population survives by livestock and beekeeping.
“The older I get, the more I am drawn to my mother’s native land. The mountains there are visible from the balcony of my house. I rarely see my relatives. It’s possible to get there of course, but you need to go through customs at the Sarpi border, then another few hours, changing transport. It’s torture, and takes a lot of money. If the border near us was open, then it would only take half an hour.”
“They come to us more often. In winter, their villages are cut off from the rest of Turkey, so more grave patients are brought to our hospitals. They have been granted the right to use a shortcut, but we have not. Probably because Turkish authorities are better than ours.”
Fadima Kirkitadze, 102 years old:
“I was married very young, without asking for it. Back then, such things were orders. My husband and I built a house, although with great torment, and raised children, and got them on their feet. I didn’t study at the institute, because the war was on, but my children and grandchildren have a higher education.
All of my relatives remained on the other side of the border when it was closed. At first, fellow villagers secretly visited each other, using a narrow path made for one person. The villages were located so close to each other, that you could put a ketsi (a clay pot) full of food on the coals, and had time to visit and return home before the food even warmed up properly.”
“Gendarmes (apparently a militia group) appeared in the village in 1936, and finally blocked the border. Even looking in that direction was forbidden. Both the Russians and the Turks watched this strictly.
“In order to get information about each other, such as who was grieving or who was happy, we secretly wrote letters. Women were especially active in this. They wrote in a cryptic style that was invented by our ancestors. It was a rare type of Georgian script. The letters were immediately burned, having barely been read, so nothing is preserved today.
“I have many relatives in Khertvisi, Artvini. We shed many tears when we were separated. I remember writing a poem in one of the letters: ‘Fly black swallow, fly to Samsun, bring a letter from a haggard brother.’ ”
Roin Malakmadze, historian and ethnologist:
“Until the 1980s, even a gesture in that direction was unauthorized, as the elders say. For seventy years they lived with an iron curtain between both the Soviet and Turkish sides. In 1988, a sick old woman was transported to us from Zemo (upper) Machakhela. There was a lot of snow that year, and they couldn’t take her to a hospital in a major Turkish city, so they took advantage of our passage. It was a very memorable event in the life of our village.”
“Then, from our side, a hundred-year-old woman was moved there. She was born in Borchkha, got married, and for 70 years didn’t see her relatives. So, quietly, relations grew warmer.”
Zemo (Upper) Machakhela – Turkey
At the checkpoint in Sarpi, there’s a long queue. After passing through it, it takes another four hours to get to the village of Zemo Machakhela.
A mosque stands in the center of the village. At the entrance, there is an inscription in three languages: Turkish, English, and Georgian. It says that the mosque was built about a hundred years ago by a master builder from Lazi (Lazi is a Georgian ethnos, mainly residing in Turkey).
Zemo Machakhela is very similar to the Georgian side; the same houses, the same fences.
It is located at an altitude of between 400-1200 metres above sea level, and belongs to the Borchkha district of the Artvin region.
It consists of six villages, with mostly Georgians living here. Winters here are extreme. If there is heavy snowfall, the villages are cut off from the outside world. Therefore, local places are practically empty in the winter. Locals scatter around different cities of Turkey in search of work, but in the summer they gather in their native land.
Rigid geographical conditions have isolated Zemo Machakhela from the rest of Turkey to some extent. Because of this, the Georgian language has been preserved far better than in other places where Georgians reside in Turkey. Locals have not only preserved the Georgian language well, but also traditions, lifestyle, folklore, etc. Young people, and even children speak the Georgian language.
Mevlud Ozaidin is the only one who lives in the village all year without leaving. An elderly man of average build, sporting a grey mustache and silver hair invited us into his house.
“Greetings to our guests,” said his wife, who was melting in the yard over a bread-oven.
At the entrance of the house, our hosts asked us to remove our shoes, and our hostess treated us to traditional tea.
Mevlud Ozadin (Tevtidze), 75 years old:
“My children live in Istanbul, but I cannot leave the graves of my ancestors. My mother is from the Abashidze family, from the village of Tskhemlana. When the border was closed, my mother was already engaged to my father. The border guards did not allow her to come here. My father had to kidnap her, his own bride.
“She never saw her parents again after the marriage. She died in 1987, and before that, her relatives cried daily when they thought of her. Sadly, holding on for another year was too much for her. In 1988 the Sarpi border was opened. She didn’t live to see that day.
“Four of my aunts lived in Batumi. I often visit their children. I went to Kvemo Machakhela to see relatives for the first time in 1996. I was warmly received and stayed with them for a month.”
“I dream that this border will finally be opened, and my children and grandchildren could easily go visit relatives, and they could visit us. Without close communication, we will lose the language. So, at home we only speak in Georgian, and even then, only the older generation does.
My children understand Georgian, but they don’t speak it very well because there are no Georgian lessons in school.”
Ibrahim Kaia (Vasadze), 24 years old:
“I went to school every day via this road. In my childhood, there was a dilapidated church where the Efrat Mosque is. I remember it well, we played hide-and-seek there as children. My father told me that the church was very beautiful in its time. His grandparents used to secretly light candles in it.
Later, a mosque was built from the stones of the church, and now a Muslim congregation meets there every Friday. I rarely spend time in Batumi with my friends.
Older people go there more often. We’re not suitable for this, for preserving our roots. Although I’ve known about my origins since childhood, I can understand the Georgian language, but I can’t speak it.”
Tamila Lomtatidze, ethnologist:
“To this day, archaic Georgian traditions, elements of life, and some holidays have survived in Machakhela Gorge. Here, rituals which are no longer present in their historical homeland are found: Khidirelesi, Ahotoba, Marioba and Shuamtoba.
This is a common phenomenon. In a strange environment, when people have been forbidden to live according to Christian traditions in order to preserve their identity, these people had a mechanism of self-preservation, and remembered archaic order and rules.”
Otar Gogolashvili, historian:
“In the 1990s, when Georgia regained its independence, Georgian authorities annulled many old agreements and handed them to the archives of history. They did not touch the Treaty of Kars though, because Turkey opposed.
“On 30 July 1992, Eduard Shervardnadze who was the Georgian leader at the time, and Turkish Prime Minister Suleman Demirel signed a new agreement based on the Treaty of Kars, which in fact prolonged the Treaty of Kars indefinitely.”
Zaza Shashikadze, historian, and expert on the history of Turkey:
“The Treaty of Kars was concluded to last a period of one hundred years, with its term coming to an end in four years, in 2021. In connection with this, political speculation has become more frequent, though the expiration of the treaty’s terms does not mean a return to the position that existed before its signing. First of all, from an international jurisprudence point of view, this treaty has no force, since those countries that created the Treaty of Kars in 1921 have already ceased to exist.
“Secondly, Georgia and Turkey have an agreement from 30 July 1992, which states that both parties recognize the borders as indicated in the Treaty of Kars. That agreement has a higher legal standing than the Treaty of Kars.”