The Real Story in Tskaltubo

The healing water has been famous for 1400 years and the buildings are relics of the 20th century’s greatest geopolitical tension, but the history I felt most keenly in Tskaltubo happened in 1993. That year, I and my peers were barely aware (if at all) of a small conflict among the wider shattering of the Soviet Union, in a place called Abkhazia.

In an otherwise empty room in a different building

We didn’t learn about two ethnic groups and the horrors of ethnic cleansing, so I never asked about the 250,000 people driven out of their homes. And I certainly didn’t know about 9000 of them, mostly women and children, ended up temporarily housed among the ruins of the former spas in Tskaltubo. The next 14 years of a tenuous ceasefire supported by an international peacekeeping mission were unknown to me, and in 2008 I didn’t pay much attention when Russia-backed forces destroyed that peace, ending their hope of ever going home.

One man who was aware of all of it, on day one and before, was the gentleman who invited me in for a cup of coffee last summer. His eyes and gentle gestures spoke a universal language, but luckily I was with a Kazakh friend who spoke Russian, so I was able to hear about his day and got pieces of the translation when he spoke with avid eyes of his favorite authors. He didn’t read Russians anymore but he loved Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, and whoever wrote the well-read vampire book that clearly lived on his dining room table. I have rarely, if ever, seen a book so clearly beloved.

Drawings of authors taped to the walls and an old calisthenics guide

And then, after long silences and eyes that showed an unspoken need, he took us across the decaying hallway to his second room, and I understood without translation when he spoke of his family. A small shelf, more of an altar now, held six objects. Three small icons of the Virgin Mary and Christ child, and three photos. In two, the elderly man and woman were navigating the beginning of the profound transition from the stern visages of the Soviet past to the softer smiles of the present. He gestured at them, but didn’t know quite what to say. The Russian word for mother sounds something like “might.”

The last photo showed the shaggy hair and smiling eyes of a young man growing up just a few years ahead of me. The eyes of my host avoided the photo at first. And when they landed on it, they couldn’t stay for long. He didn’t say anything, though his mouth worked soundlessly. Words either too familiar or too painful to speak.

He reached out for the small golden vision of the benevolent mother of god, and held it in his worn palm like a lifeline. It fit with familiarity, like something gripped many times as the years passed and his home grew further and further away, but his son got no older.

The refugees were only supposed to be in the spas for a short time. Thirty years ago. Most have found other places over the decades. Those few who are left will soon be moved out so Tskaltubo can be renovated for tourism. And I sat, awkwardly conscious of the camera in my hand and the vacation liberty on my shoulders. He offered another cup of coffee. We thanked him and said goodbye. Then I went back to exploring the ruins. And he continued living in them.

I didn’t know what to say when we got back to the car. Neither did my friend. She just looked down at the well worn vampire book he had given her.