Goats, ghosts and golden years — dispatch from an abandoned city in Abkhazia
Ever wondered how life would look like if humans disappeared? Akarmara was once part of the bustling Soviet coal mining town of Tkvarchel/i in Abkhazia with 5,000 residents in the 1970s.
Today, it is a shadow of its former self as the Georgian-Abkhaz war of 1992-1993 and subsequent closure of the mine and local factory have seen it become a ghost town.
EXPLAINER: Tensions between different ethnic groups living in Abkhazia, on the Black Sea coast, erupted in violent conflict in 1992-93. These tensions centred around competing historical claims by Georgians and Abkhaz on the territory of Abkhazia, fuelled in part by different interpretations of the Soviet past.
According to the BBC there are only 35 residents left in Akamara, though we only saw two: an elderly lady selling honey and spices on the side of the road, and a man tending to his car.
Indeed, most of the remaining residents are old and cannot easily leave this shell of their former home.
Humans may have all but left, but life always finds a way. Nature is mounting an irrepressible offensive to reclaim what was once hers — the forest is the tenant now.
Instead of people, goats and pigs roam the streets and buildings, to the backdrop of rich shades of green as trees, grass and moss lay claim to the apartment blocks and houses.
Beautiful bushes of flowers — bright blue, pink or purple — dot the sides of the road. This once flourishing coal town of the Soviet Union may be on its final breathes, but nature’s assault has made its death both beautiful and eerie.
Akarmara is part of Tkvarcheli, a former Soviet mining town that once housed an estimated 35,000 residents and was considered an example of a ‘perfectly designed’ town.
“In better times, working and living in Tkvarcheli was regarded a privilege – not just by miners, but by engineers and academics as well. The town was created to embody a dream. An idea to create a perfect city pervaded the minds of Soviet architects and practitioners after the Second World War when a lot of cities were rebuilt almost from scratch,” Russian-born photographer and author of The Song of Tkvarcheli Maria Gruzdeva told the British Journal of Photography in 2017.
But as with many places in Abkhazia, the 1990s marked the beginning of the end. Tkvarcheli was put under siege by the Georgian National Guard from October 1992 to September 1993, almost the entirety of the Georgian-Abkhaz War.
The Georgians failed with their siege, but the war and subsequent closure of the mine and factory, coupled with Abkhazia’s international isolation, took a heavy toll on Tkhvarcheli. Only about 5,000 residents remain, according to a 2011 census.
Those that do remain in this town weathered by a war against time, crumbling and rusting relics continuously reminding them of a long lost heyday, have developed a unique sense of identity around it. To them, Tvkharcheli fills the void left by Abkhazia’s limbo and the de facto state’s lack of international recognition.
“A heavy nostalgia for the Soviet Union lingers,” explains our guide, Alkaz, who grew up on the outskirts of Tkvarcheli.
“People had work back then; now there is nothing. During the tourist season, people will usually leave to work on the coast; in Gudauta, Gagra or Sukhum,” he says.
“And what do they do during the winter?” we ask.
“Try and survive.”