A meditation on death during Georgia’s violent 1990s: “The Pass of the Persecuted” by Guram Odisharia4 min read
“It was perhaps the most terrible night on the highest point of the Sakeni-Chuberi pass. It was during that night that I saw several people die in my arms like birds.”
In this short novella, Georgian novelist Guram Odisharia, who also authored The Cyclops Bomb, writes about his personal experience crossing the Sakeni-Chuberi mountain pass during the 1992–93 Georgian-Abkhazian conflict. Following the fall of Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia, thousands of ethnic Georgian refugees were forced to flee through such mountain passes, many dying of cold and starvation on the way. The Pass of the Persecuted is Odisharia’s most well-known piece of work, though it was only translated into English in 2013.
The novella opens on 27 September 1993, the day Sukhumi was taken by Abkhaz forces. While Odisharia’s wife and daughter had already left for Tbilisi, Odisharia had stayed behind with his mother and brother. The novella follows his journey first by car to Sakeni, the last settlement in Abkhazia’s Kodori Gorge, then on foot as he walks the 50 plus miles through the mountain pass to Chuberi, the first village on the Georgian side. It is a harrowing journey, and Odisharia faithfully describes the many horrors that occurred on the path, as well as the ironic beauty of the nature surrounding the pass.
One of the main themes in the novella is a warning to society of putting weaponry above all else. For example, in one section, Odisharia ruminates on the false beauty assigned to the tools used to harm others. He lists the multiple weapons named after flowers, such as the rocket launcher Edelweiss or the Vasilek automatic mortar, which is named after a cornflower that springs up in meadow fields. In a message still highly relevant today, when gun violence is on the rise in multiple countries from Serbia to the US, Odisharia tells his readers: “Miserable is the country where a bullet is valued more than a kind word, where hatred means more than love.”
Odisharia focuses much of his novella on the human cost of the mountain pass, and how no one is spared, no matter their age, gender, or social class: “They are coming and coming and there seems no end to the stream. […] I see marauders, corrupt, soulless military functionaries branded by the blood of war, a sunflower seed seller and a millionaire with a narrow forehead, who has already become a pauper.” Multiple times he compares the masses he sees struggling through the pass as “fluttering autumn leaves,” continuing his use of nature-based imagery.
Though short, Odisharia manages to passionately convey all of the emotions experienced over his journey, making the novella a hard read at times. In one particularly moving passage, Odisharia addresses those who have lost their loved ones on the pass, telling them that those he came across had died with “serene faces, with no traces of suffering.” He understands that such words will not console relatives and friends, but he still attempts to bring them some peace by illustrating what he saw and experienced.
At the end of the novella, Odisharia turns to the abstract, comparing the mountain pass to a magic triptych consisting of the past, the future, and the present. Labelling it the Pass of the Persecuted, Odisharia uses figurative language to express his view that this is the only pass in the world that is present everywhere, alluding to the many persecutions that occur around the world. He further claims that the pass is an “offspring of the bleeding, self-murdering Georgia, torturing her heart with her own nails.” Odisharia ends his novella with a cry to the readers on what the future holds: “What are we to do? What path are we to take? How can we help the dying child, quiet in his father’s arms, still breathing, before whom we are all guilty, the whole world, the whole Georgia, each one of us is guilty!”
By focusing on the human story rather than the politics, Odisharia creates a worthwhile work that avoids being bogged down in the stale arguments of who is to blame. However, due to its short length and rather abstract ending, the unfamiliar reader may have more questions than answers with regards to the overall conflict. Overall, however, The Pass of the Persecuted succeeds as a moving account of the war on Abkhazia.
Book details: Odisharia, Guram, The Pass of the Persecuted, translated by Elene Pagava and Ia Iashvili, 2013, LTD. Buy it here.