On September 22, 1993, a plane flying from Tbilisi to Sokhumi – capital city of Abkhazia, Georgia’s breakaway region - was shot down while attempting to land at Babushera airport. The aircraft crashed on the runway, killing 108 of the 132 people on board.
During the same week, two other civilian airliners belonging to Tbilisi-based Transair Georgia were hit by missiles fired by Russian-backed rebels in Sokhumi. A total of 136 perished in the attacks.
This was only one episode of the war that lasted for 13 months in Abkhazia in 1992-1993.
The families of those killed in the plane crash could not retreive the bodies of their loved ones. The scale of the damage meant it was impossible to identify the bodies following the crash without DNA testing.
The war continued in the city of Sokhumi but it was urgent to bury the bodies. Those who were killed were buried in a mass grave without being formally identified.
Now, 21 years on from the Babushera tragedy, the bodies of all Georgians who died in the crash have finally returned home.
Authorities began to excavate the graves at Babushera Cemetery in May 2014 following lengthy negotiations between Georgia and Abkhazia.
International humanitarian aid group Red Cross helped facilitate cooperation between de-facto Abkhaz authorities and Georgian officials. The graves of the unknown victims were opened and DNA samples were taken from all the bodies.
The samples were sent to Zagreb, Croatia to be analysed. Currently testing is still underway. Once all the remains are identified, the bodies will be returned to their families and reburied in Georgia. The victims will finally be laid to rest in peace.
September 22, 1993 was the day Nukri Zirakashvili became a hero.
Zirakashvili was among the two dozen people who survived the plane crash in Babushera. After dragging himself out of the aircraft, which was on fire, he saved the lives of as many people around him as he could.
Together with his three friends, then 32-year-old military police officer who had served in Afghanistan, decided to travel to Sohkumi to assist the Georgian soldiers in troubled Abkhazia.
Before the fated plane departed Tbilisi, Babushera Airport in Sokhumi announced it was closed to all flights. However this did not stop the doomed flight from leaving Tbilisi and heading to Abkhazia.
What Zirakashvili remembered from that day sounded more like the plot of a fiction movie rather than a real life experience.
Zirakashvili said the plane was flying above the Black Sea when passengers noticed a ship had opened fire in their direction. After the first unsuccessful attack, the pilot changed course but a second missile attack struck one of the plane’s wings and caused immediate and irreparable damage.
The plane, unable to keep its balance, continued flying towards Sohkumi but it ran out of fuel as the petrol tank had been damaged in the attack.
“Once the plane approached the runway of Babushera Airport we started falling down as fast as a bullet,” Zirakashvili said.
The plane hit the runway hard, skidded along the tarmac, turned upside down and kept sliding for a further 600 metres.
This was the last thing Zirakashvili remembered.
After he regained consciousness, he saw a small hole above his head. Beyond that hole was the sky.
Zirakashvili gathered his strength and climbed out of the hole. Once he was free, he grabbed other survivors and helped them out of the aircraft, which was now on fire.