To most people in the Caucasus, the Enguri River is a border, and a de facto one at that. For a good stretch of its 130-mile route, the river demarcates the boundary between Georgia, a former Soviet republic that declared its independence in 1991, and Abkhazia, a region that declared its own independence from Georgia a year later. Only Russia and four other nations recognize a sovereign Abkhaz state, and armed Russian troops control the river crossings into what most of the rest of the world considers Georgian territory.
But photographer Julian Pebrel sees the Enguri less as a dividing line in a frozen geopolitical conflict, and more as a dynamic timeline that maps the trajectory of the region’s history.
The Enguri’s headwaters emerge from the glaciers of Shkhara, Georgia’s tallest peak, in the mountainous region of Svanetia. This is the land of tradition, where flocks graze the steep slopes of the Caucasus as they have for millennia. Here the river wends through Europe’s highest permanent settlement, the village of Ushguli, dotted with medieval towers that defended family clans from blood feuds that continued well into the 20th century.
Just 65 miles from the pristine vales of Ushguli, halfway on its path west to the Black Sea, the Enguri runs up against the concrete massif of the Djvari dam. Built during Soviet times, the structure that holds back the river now lies in Georgia, while the hydroelectric powerhouse sits in Abkhaz territory. The dam still provides electricity to both sides, although the Georgian village built for its workers now houses refugees (mostly ethnic Georgians) who have fled across the river from Abkhazia.
Further west, more refugees are caught in limbo on the alluvial plains of Samgrelo. They fled in the early 1990s and waited months and then years to return to their homes in Abkhazia on the other side of the Enguri. But in 2008 Georgia and Russia faced each other down across the river in a brief summer war. The results: More refugees on the Enguri’s southern banks, and more Russian troops patrolling its north.
The Enguri empties into the Black Sea at Anaklia, a sleepy coastal village on its way to becoming a strategic deep-sea port for goods moving between Europe and Asia. The future of the port, imagined in part as a beacon to woo Abkhazia away from Russian influence with a vision of 21st-century Georgia, remains in question, while physical barriers marshal to separate the two in places where the Enguri river no longer can.