Throughout the 413 days of the Patriotic War of the people of Abkhazia (Georgian-Abkhazian War of 1992-93), over seven thousand wounded traversed the halls of the republic’s hospitals. A significant number of them were able to return to the ranks, thanks to the unwavering dedication of the medical staff. Surgeon Valeriy Avidzba was among those who defended the Homeland from the outset of the war, later contributing to the establishment of the military medical service of Abkhazia.
This narrative explores Dr. Avidzba's unexpected journey into the war, the reason behind his transition from the frontlines to the hospital, and provides insight into the challenging conditions under which surgeons operated during the conflict.
Before the onset of the Patriotic War of the people of Abkhazia, Valeriy Avidzba held the position of a surgeon and deputy chief physician at Gudauta District Hospital. Subsequently, at the behest of the party leadership, he assumed leadership of a sanatorium in Gagra.
On 14 August 1992, the war in Abkhazia erupted. Like thousands of his compatriots, Valeriy felt compelled to act.
“As the war unfolded, I was in my office, absorbing Vladislav Grigorievich Ardzinba's address to the people. He spoke of Georgian aggressors entering Abkhazian territory undeclared, wreaking havoc. In that moment, I momentarily set aside my medical duties. The immediate impulse was to bear arms and stand in solidarity with my brothers to defend Abkhazia. It is the inherent duty of every citizen,” reminisces the surgeon.
Valeriy initially made his way to his native village of Mgudzyrhua. Armed with his father’s hunting rifle, he joined the assembly at the village council, where fellow villagers had congregated. Shortly thereafter, a group of 15 armed young men rallied to their side, nominating Valeriy as their commander. United, they proceeded to Gudauta, and subsequently to Sukhum, to safeguard the Red Bridge.
“Our rifles were freshly oiled; several among us were unfamiliar with their operation. However, having encountered similar circumstances during the Czech events, I was adept with a rifle and understood its workings. I even guided a few on its proper use,” shares Valeriy Avidzba.
A Surgeon’s Duty Beyond the Frontlines
By 18 August, Georgian military units had secured their hold in Sukhum, compelling the Abkhazian militia to pull back to Gumista.
“We swiftly learned that a landing force had arrived in Gagra, and it too fell under Georgian occupation. The situation was unambiguous. Inevitably, the influx of the wounded and the fallen began. Nanba Zakan and Vitaliy Agumava turned to me, questioning, 'Doctor, what purpose do you serve here? With the wounded being transported to Gudauta, your presence here is inconsequential. You are essential there; attend to your direct responsibilities.' I consulted the comrades I had been with since the initial days, seeking their counsel. Without hesitation, they urged, 'Should we sustain injuries, who will tend to us? You must go,'” Valeriy Avidzba recounts.
However, Abkhazian medicine found itself without combat experience, necessitating the creation of an organised structure from the ground up. The initial step involved the establishment of a headquarters, with Otar Osiya at the helm and Valeriy Avidzba as one of his deputies.
Military hospitals emerged in Gudauta and New Athos. Avidzba observed that wartime medicine necessitated a fundamental reimagining and reinitiation.
“We were confronted with scenarios demanding improvisation and adaptation to challenges previously unencountered,” he stressed.
Endless Hours Under the Surgical Light
From the onset of the conflict, the Abkhazian side experienced a significant number of casualties. Over the course of the 413 days of combat, the Gudauta Military Hospital bore witness to 4,063 wounded. The surgeons found themselves operating around the clock.
“Grasping even a single hour of sleep was a luxury. Throughout the entirety of the war, I scarcely spent a night at home, which was understandable. My son was on the frontlines, creating a constant state of anticipation. Every time a vehicle bearing the wounded arrived, I found myself anxiously wondering if my son was among them. This persistent uncertainty made departure inconceivable. Furthermore, the relentless nature of hostilities and the ever-present wounded made rest elusive,” Valeriy Avidzba reflects.
Harrows of Gagra and Struggles in the Operating Room
Valeriy Avidzba deems the liberation of Gagra as one of the most challenging and harrowing experiences. On that day, they encountered 27 critically wounded soldiers, subjected to near-execution-style injuries. “The Svans, fluent in Abkhaz, deceived our men, calling them into ambushes. Our soldiers, believing they were rushing to their comrades, were shot at point-blank range. We conducted surgeries on these wounded directly in the Gagra hospital, as transferring them to Gudauta was not an option. Operating amidst blood and limited resources, we strived to stem the bleeding and save lives. It was a scene from a horror film,” recounted Avidzba.
The failed January offensive proved gruelling for Abkhaz doctors. Avidzba reports numerous casualties, with 19 Abkhaz fighters stranded on enemy territory across Gumista. “Harsh winter conditions, coupled with incessant gunfire, rendered rescue impossible. The anguish of hearing their voices, knowing they were within enemy lines, was unbearable. However, the laws of war dictate that even the enemy must aid the wounded on the battlefield. Relying on this, our leadership negotiated for the return of our wounded in exchange for Georgian prisoners,” the surgeon recalls.
However, the Georgian military's false assurances resulted in a tragic fate for the wounded Abkhaz soldiers. “They waited until the early hours, announcing through loudspeakers that the wounded would be handed over to the Abkhaz side. Contrarily, the Georgians mercilessly ended their lives with bayonets. We received many bodies with fresh, bleeding stab wounds,” Avidzba disclosed.
Breathing Life into the Hopeless
Military surgeons frequently grappled with seemingly insurmountable cases. Following an assault on Akhbiuk, numerous wounded were brought to Gudauta hospital. “I found a critically ill young man, displaying no signs of life, awaiting an X-ray. With no available assistance and operating tables, I enlisted the help of gynaecologist Liana Achba. Despite her initial hesitation due to her specialisation, we performed a chest operation, removing a fragment the size of a matchbox. Miraculously, the young man's colour returned, and he began breathing. We had essentially breathed life into him,” Avidzba vividly recalls.
Pioneering a Rehabilitation Centre for Wounded Fighters
In the early stages of the war, the notion of establishing a rehabilitation centre for injured fighters had not yet been contemplated, confesses Valeriy Avidzba. The inspiration emerged spontaneously following the liberation of Gagra.
“Upon witnessing the desolation of the Climate Balneological Rehabilitation Centre (CBRC) post-liberation of Gagra, a spur-of-the-moment idea struck me. The facility was in disarray, ransacked by people seizing anything they could find. Despite the extensive damages from artillery and gunfire, the very name 'Climate Balneological Rehabilitation Centre' seemed to suggest its future purpose. The realisation dawned that we needed to organise a rehabilitation centre for those who would inevitably be disabled post-war, given the number of surgeries we were performing,” Avidzba recalls.
Motivated by this vision, the surgeon approached the staff of the CBRC, proposing they rebuild the facility with their own hands. By May 1993, the rehabilitation centre was operational and ready to welcome its first patients. Subsequently, an orthopaedic service specialising in prosthetics for amputees was established within the CBRC. “Vladislav Grigorievich once remarked, 'Many nations lack prosthetic services, and yet, here you are, aspiring to establish one. Go ahead, give it a try.' To this day, the orthopaedic prosthetics service continues to operate,” the surgeon added. Valeriy Avidzba remains at the helm of the Rehabilitation Centre in Gagra, where annually, dozens of veterans from the Patriotic War of the people of Abkhazia receive treatment through the CBRC.