Tkvarcheli: Abkhazia's Ghost Town
Tkvarcheli (Tkvarchal) Overview
Tkvarcheli, or Tkvarchal in the Abkhaz language, is a town in the unrecognized country of Abkhazia.
Akarmara, an area within the town, is home to many abandoned apartments, building and factories. It has been abandoned since the war with Georgia in the early 1990s, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
War in Abkhazia
During the war in Abkhazia, Tkvarcheli was under siege by Georgian forces as Georgia saw the town as a main choke point for the war.
As such, the town became a primary Abkhaz stronghold against further Georgian advances. The siege lasted from October 1992 to September 1993 but was ultimately unsuccessful and the war lead to Abkhazian sovereignty.
As the town was under siege, nearby villages were subject to ongoing battles between Georgian and Abkhaz forces. Russian aid was critical for the defence of Tkvarcheli, as it suffered a humanitarian crisis during the length of the siege.
According to the last pre-war census in 1989 done by the Soviet Union, Tkvarcheli had a population of 21,744. Abkhaz (42.3%), Russians (24.5%) and Georgians (23.4%) populations account for the ethnic makeup of the town.
The Russian military actively intervened in the crisis in Tkvarcheli. Russian forces successfully delivered both humanitarian and military support to Tkvarcheli during the course of the siege.
In addition, Russia until this day, has been closely allied with Abkhazia in its conflict with Georgia.
Allegedly, both Russian-trained and Russian-paid fighters were transported to the area to take part in the fighting against Georgian forces as well, arriving by means of helicopter to the besieged town.
The Georgians lost Gagra to Abkhazian forces commanded by Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, who at the time was the commander in-chief of the forces of the Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus. Georgian troops responded to this defeat by shelling Tkvarcheli.
In February 1993, Abkhaz fighters attacked the village of Kvirauri, just outside of Tkvarcheli, and took approximately 500 prisoners. They threatened to kill the prisoners unless Georgian forces ended their offensive in a neighboring district.
A temporary ceasefire allowed the Russians to carry out its largest humanitarian operation in Tkvarcheli in June 1993, evacuating several hundreds of civilians through the corridor offered by the Georgian army.
The Georgians claimed, however, that a great deal of weaponry and ammunitions were simultaneously delivered to Tkvarcheli by Russian forces, under the cover of a humanitarian operation.
On July 14, 1993, there was a huge turn of events for the besieged town of Tkvarcheli. Russian forces ousted Georgian units from the main heights around Tkvarcheli - the main strategic points for the continuation of the siege of the city.
Although, Abkhaz forces still failed to completely breach the siege at this point, the town was far less vulnerable afterwards and was a major victory for the future unrecognized country.
Abkhazia: Unrecognized Country
On September 16, 1993, Abkhaz and other Caucasus forces, launched simultaneous attacks against Georgian forces in Sukhumi, Ochamchira and against Georgian forces blockading Tkvarcheli.
The capital city, Sukhumi, was successfully taken by Abkhaz forces 11 days later, shortly before breaking the siege of Tkvarcheli 2 days after that.
By September 29, 1993, the siege had been lifted and sovereignty over the city was exercised by the de facto government of Abkhazia in Sukhumi.
Tourism in Abkhazia
With many abandoned and destroyed buildings, Abkhazia sets the perfect atmosphere for unchartered and unique adventures. Whether you're an adventure traveller or simply interested in exploring abandoned Soviet-era buildings, the opportunity to see authentic abandoned places in Abkhazia is huge.
Many of the major towns have small areas and districts that have not yet been rebuilt since the wars, such as Old Gagra and parts of Sukhumi.
Although there are no official maps of the ruins and abandoned areas, it's very easy to locate these sights in Abkhazia. In addition to buildings, Abkhazia has several abandoned palaces, churches, factories and railway stations across the country.
The train graveyard in Sukhumi has old Soviet trains just waiting for adventurous tourists to come and check out.
Exploring the abandoned towns and districts is the ultimate activity for the eager travel photographer or adventure traveller.
Since these building were at the centre of conflict and have remained untouched since the time of the Soviet Union, all travellers should exercise caution upon entering any building and permission should be sought from your guide prior to making entrance.
Tkvarcheli however, is home to the largest collection of Soviet-era abandoned structures in the country. Once a prime example of a working town in the Soviet Union, much of the town is now abandoned and considered a 'ghost-town.'
Today, the abandoned town is open for curious travellers to explore on a tour to Abkhazia.
It offers tourists the chance to take a peak into a typical Soviet town that has remained untouched since. Although untouched by humans, the forest has been slowly taking back the town.
It is an authentic glimpse into what was regarded as a 'perfectly designed Soviet city.' Entering Tkvarcheli is a real opportunity to see history up close and see what life looked like up until war ravaged the area following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
“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 photographer Maria Gruzdeva stated.
Salat, P (2019). "Goats, ghosts and golden years — dispatch from an abandoned city in Abkhazia." https://jam-news.net/goats-ghosts-and-golden-years-dispatch-from-the-abandoned-city-in-abkhazia/
Vassiliev, N. (2017). "Tkvarcheli Ghost Town. http://inrussia.com/tkvarcheli-ghost-town