GUDAUTA, Georgia — A land of snowcapped peaks and seaside tangerine groves, Abkhazia is best known for its choir of elders. Every few months, these sturdy mountain men with long memories gather to sing ancestral Abkhazian legends of war and exodus, triumph and grief.
Today, the voices of the Nartaa Long-Living Men's Choir carry an immediate, plaintive message. Their small Black Sea province is fighting an undeclared war against Georgia to save what remains of an ancient civilization.
"Our warrior heroes have died and physically departed, but the tales of their deeds will help us survive this genocidal assault," intoned Khimbei Gezerdava, wiry and elfish at age 98, as he began the latest concert, a spirited performance for an audience of battle-weary Abkhazian guerrillas and refugees.
Abkhazians have been fighting since the Georgian army crushed their autonomous status within Georgia last August by seizing the provincial capital of Sukhumi. Thousands of people and their elected leaders fled and quickly formed a resistance army based here. Since then, almost 2,000 people on both sides have died as the means of defense escalated from firebombs and hang gliders to tanks and warplanes.
Support from northern Caucasian warriors and Russian fighter pilots has helped the outnumbered Abkhazians battle to a standoff, leaving the province partitioned into halves from which each army expels its ethnic rivals and loots their homes.
All this has turned a seaside paradise of eucalyptus trees, beach resorts and archaic hospitality into an ugly laboratory of "ethnic cleansing." Entire villages and city blocks lie in ruins, while tangerines, the leading money earner after the tourists who have fled, rot on the trees.
Of half a dozen ethnic conflicts spawned by the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the battle for Abkhazia is the most threatening to an entire language and culture. The 97,000 Abkhazians were already a minority in their own homeland, a territory the size of Puerto Rico.
The gravity of the Georgian offensive became chillingly clear when its commander, Col. Georgy Karkarashvili, warned on Abkhazian television: "We are ready to sacrifice 100,000 Georgians to annihilate 97,000 Abkhazians. We will leave the entire Abkhazian nation without descendants."
His men have already gone to the trouble to erase much of Abkhazia's written history--documentary and literary evidence of the separate Abkhazian identity that Georgia officially denies. In the first days of the invasion, witnesses said, Georgian troops set fire to the provincial archives and waved away firefighters at gunpoint, allowing thousands of unpublished manuscripts to go up in smoke.
Western scholars who had worked in the archives said that their loss, coupled with the likelihood of continuing ethnic warfare, could doom the Abkhazians to oblivion. "This might be the \o7 coup de grace \f7 for a people who have been clinging by their fingernails for more than a century," said John Colarusso, a linguistics professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada.
Abkhazians trace their roots back at least two millennia. A highly ritualized mountain society, they hold warriors, women, scholars and especially their elders in high esteem. In their tongue, part of the Iberian-Caucasian language group, Abkhazia means "country of the soul." Ruled in turn by the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires, the Abkhazians fell under Russian domination in the 1860s; many fled to what is now Turkey and lost their language.
Georgian scholars argue that the Abkhazian culture, by then, had been absorbed into their own ancient civilization, even though the two languages are as different as English and Chinese.
In any case, Abkhazia and Georgia were separate republics in their first decade under Soviet rule, until dictator Josef Stalin in 1931 subjected the Abkhazians to direct administrative control from Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. For most of a generation until Stalin's death in 1953, the Abkhazian language was banned and Georgians were moved en masse to Abkhazia to assimilate their neighbors. Ethnic Abkhazians today number only 18% of the province's 525,000 people.
After regaining legal status for their language, the Abkhazians staged a series of uprisings that prompted the Soviets to allow them a university, a television station and a majority quota in the provincial Parliament. Today, children in Abkhazian schools study in that language through the fourth grade, then switch to Russian.
But as Moscow lost control, Tbilisi abolished the Georgian constitution that protected those minority rights and blocked a program to repatriate thousands of ethnic Abkhazians from Turkey. When Abkhazia's Parliament reacted last summer by reviving its own autonomous 1925 constitution, the Georgian army sent tanks to shut it down.