And for three months this year, access to the crossing point was closed.
Families were divided. Students struggled to make it to university. Even a simple act like going to a concert became impossible.
While the crossing point is currently open, the three-month restriction on movement has underscored the constant vulnerability of ethnic Georgians living in Abkhazia.
“It was a terrible experience to describe. In July, when schoolchildren in Gali had national exams, parents paid [bribes of] 5,000 roubles ($77), some 10,000 ($155) to cross. I do not want to go back [to Gali] if such practices continue. We are in prison. It is impossible to live in such conditions,” Nika says.
There are the daily injustices, such as the removal of the Georgian language from schools in Gali. And then there are the more fundamental security issues, like not being able to register property, vote or trust that the police will help when you need them.
“Unfortunately, you are not big enough.” It was meant as a joke to the border guard, but it meant that the middle-aged Georgian man (18-65 years) trying to cross the Inguri was not allowed to pass. Or at least, not allowed unless he paid a bribe.
Badri faced that choice regularly over the summer after his children fell ill. Hospitals in Gali lack supplies and modern expertise, so his wife crossed the Inguri to take them to a better hospital in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. When the Abkhaz authorities closed the crossing in response to protests in Tbilisi in July, Badri was stuck.
For more than three months, male residents of Gali were prevented from crossing the boundary. Although the restrictions were lifted on October 2, the experience has left Gali’s population fearful and frustrated.
Over the past year, the Abkhaz authorities have closed the crossing point twice. When that happens, ethnic Georgians living in Gali have little recourse: either they can try to pay bribes or they can stay at home.
“In order to visit my ill children and wife, who were in hospital in Tbilisi, I had to pay 5,000 roubles ($77) in total. I paid 1,000 roubles ($15) every time I crossed… Is this a life? I nearly went crazy, my children were hooked up to artificial lungs and I couldn’t visit them,” Badri says.
Even the $15 bribe is no guarantee of success. Sometimes border guards take the money, sometimes they do not. The amount is subject to change: Nika had to pay $46 to cross so he could secure his place in a master's degree program.
“I paid 2,000 roubles ($30) the second time. Later I had to write a statement to the [Georgian Education] Ministry to get financing to pay tuition and I had to cross Inguri Bridge a third time and paid 2,000 roubles again,” he says.
The decision to close the crossing point was not a novelty: the Abkhaz authorities closed it in January, citing an influenza outbreak in Georgian-controlled territory.