Georgia/Abkhazia: Violations of the Laws of War and Russia's Role in the Conflict - THE FALL OF SUKHUMI AND FLIGHT OF THE GEORGIAN POPULATION, AUGUST TO DECEMBER 1993

Georgia/Abkhazia: Violations of the Laws of War and Russia's Role in the Conflict - THE FALL OF SUKHUMI AND FLIGHT OF THE GEORGIAN POPULATION, AUGUST TO DECEMBER 1993

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The cease-fire that took effect on July 27, 1993 was the only significant lull in the fighting, lasting about seven weeks. The terms of the cease-fire required both sides to withdraw their heavy weapons from the contested area of Sukhumi. Human Rights Watch observed heavy artillery being withdrawn on both sides in August 1993. Pursuant to U.N. Security Council Resolution 854, U.N. observers began arriving to monitor the cease-fire at the end of July.[142]

In fact, the cease-fire never held perfectly; hostilities continued in Shroma, above Sukhumi, for several days after the cease- fire went into effect.[143] On August 11, the first arriving U.N. observers to the conflict zone were fired on at the Gumista frontline in Sukhumi.[144] Meanwhile, talks on the immediate issues of prisoner exchanges and troop withdrawals went forward between the parties. The U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 858, calling for a six-month deployment of eighty-eight cease-fire observers, while plans were discussed for talks on longer-term issues such as refugee repatriation under U.N. and Russian mediation. In Sukhumi, electricity came on sporadically during the last week of August while running water remained "virtually nonexistent and the few stores ... not destroyed in the shelling [were] empty ... Even bread [was] still a luxury."[145]

In the meantime, Gamsakhurdia's forces launched an offensive against Shevardnadze's forces in Georgia. At the end of August, they had taken three key towns in Mingrelia – Senaki, Abasha, and Khobi.[146] By early September, they had also taken the port city of Poti, and occupied local government buildings in Gali. The Shevardnadze government was thus increasingly distracted by these renewed challenges which, because of their proximity to Abkhazia, made it difficult for Georgian forces to withdraw their heavy weapons according to the cease-fire timetable. In fact, the Russian Black Sea fleet had to withdraw a portion of Georgian weaponry by sea to avoid the risk of it falling into the hands of Gamsakhurdia's forces.


On the morning of September 16, 1993, Abkhaz forces broke the cease-fire and launched simultaneous attacks against Sukhumi, Ochamchira and Georgian forces blockading Tkvarcheli. Abkhaz authorities cited Georgia's failure to effect a complete withdrawal of its weapons and troops from the conflict zone as justification for their action.[147]

The world at large appeared taken by surprise. Both the United Nations Security Council and the Russian foreign ministry issued strong condemnations of the Abkhaz action, and called on Abkhaz forces to withdraw immediately.[148] Although there was fierce fighting, Abkhaz forces reportedly had a clear advantage in heavy equipment. On September 17, Russian peacekeeping monitors returned to Georgian forces the essential breech-blocks taken from their artillery pieces pursuant to the cease-fire agreement.[149] After Russian defense minister Pavel Grachev met with Abkhaz leader Vladislav Ardzinba in Gudauta and Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze in Sochi, the Russian government formally condemned the Abkhazians for breaching the cease-fire, criticized the Georgians for refusing to negotiate, and called for economic sanctions to be imposed on both sides. Russia then cut off electricity, radio relay stations, and phone lines to Abkhazia.[150]

By September 20-21, Abkhaz forces had reached the outskirts of Sukhumi, nearly surrounding it, but Georgian troops refused an Abkhaz offer to withdraw through a guaranteed cease-fire corridor from the city.[151] As the battle for the city went on, and flights into Sukhumi airport became the only means of reaching the Georgian side, one aircraft after another, including civilian craft, was shot down with what press on the scene described as Stinger-type heat-seeking missiles fired from gunboats in the Black Sea. Twenty- eight people were reportedly killed in the first downing of a Tupolev-134 passenger jet; the second attack, days later, claimed eighty lives, according to Georgian officials.[152]

On September 27, Sukhumi fell to Abkhaz fighters as the Russian Black Sea fleet evacuated tens of thousands of Georgians by sea.[153] Many tens of thousands more attempted to flee to the south and east through Ochamchira and Mingrelia. Other tens of thousands sought to cross the Caucasus mountains east of Sukhumi.


The fall of Sukhumi in September 1993 offered Abkhaz fighters an unprecedented chance at revenge for what Georgian fighters had done the year before, and a wave of atrocities followed. According to The Independent,

Truck-loads of booty have been carted out by soldiers, murders of civilians have been common and houses have been marked according to the ethnic affiliation of their inhabitants ... Tales of looting, murder, rape and arson have also been recounted by exhausted Georgians on the two main escape routes [from Sukhumi].[154]

The 1994 U.S. State Department Country Reports also describes scenes of massive human rights abuse:

The [Abkhaz] separatist forces committed widespread atrocities against the Georgian civilian population, killing many women, children, and elderly, capturing some as hostages and torturing others ... they also killed large numbers of Georgian civilians who remained behind in Abkhaz-seized territory...

The separatists launched a reign of terror against the majority Georgian population, although other nationalities also suffered. Chechens and other north Caucasians from the Russian Federation reportedly joined local Abkhaz troops in the commission of atrocities... Those fleeing Abkhazia made highly credible claims of atrocities, including the killing of civilians without regard for age or sex. Corpses recovered from Abkhaz-held territory showed signs of extensive torture.[155]

The evidence available to Human Rights Watch supports the U.S. State Department's findings.

The Abkhaz attacks triggered a mass flight of Georgian civilians that international relief organizations "roughly estimated at 230,000 to 250,000 people."[156] Some 50,000 of those fleeing came from Sukhumi. Those who fled along the main highway leading southeast through Ochamchira and Mingrelia to Tbilisi had to contend with continuing fighting not only between Georgian and Abkhaz forces, but fighting between pro-Shevardnadze and pro-Gamsakhurdia forces as well. A second road out of Sukhumi led across the mountains behind Sukhumi, the 10,000 foot passes of the Caucasus, through the Kodori valley to the peaks of Svanetia and the Russian border beyond. This route – described by one journalist as a "caravan of trauma"[157] – spelled tragedy for thousands. The narrow mountain tracks turned to mud under the immense volume of traffic and the worsening autumn weather. Journalists described scenes of "refugees who had been stranded for weeks, lashed by rain and snow, sleeping fifty to a house or camping out in rickety Soviet-era cars."[158] A blizzard in early October claimed many; their bodies remained by the sides of trails in the mountain passes. Those who managed to reach Tbilisi found that the city had little to offer. By October 8, it was reported, Tbilisi itself had "only a week's supply of grain."[159]

Human Rights Watch finds Abkhaz forces responsible for the foreseeable wave of revenge, human rights abuse, and war crimes that was unleashed on the Georgian population in Sukhumi and other parts of Abkhazia. In Human Rights Watch's judgment, these practices were indeed encouraged in order to drive the Georgian population from its homes. The Abkhaz leadership is responsible in precisely the same way that Human Rights Watch holds the Georgian government responsible for human rights abuse and war crimes unleashed against the Abkhaz civilian population when Georgian forces entered Sukhumi and other parts of Abkhaz territory a year earlier.


Abkhaz forces pressed their advantage between October and December 1993, and by year's end had achieved most of their territorial aims, as well as the flight of most Georgians previously living in Abkhazia. Abkhazia declared itself an autonomous republic, a status that has not been recognized by the international community. To the contrary, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 876 on October 19, reaffirming support for Georgia's territorial integrity and condemning the violation of the July 27 cease- fire agreement and subsequent violations of international humanitarian law by Abkhaz forces.[160]

During this period Georgian government forces were pitted in an increasingly bitter and desperate fight against forces supporting Gamsakhurdia, who threatened to take over portions of western Georgia and began advancing on Tbilisi itself. On October 2, the latter occupied Poti, Georgia's last remaining major port on the Black Sea.[161] The next day they took Khoni and Vani, two towns near Kutaisi (about 145 miles west of Tbilisi).[162] By mid-October, they had also captured Samtredi, an important junction on the strategically important Transcaucasus railway.[163]

These successes by the anti-Shevardnadze forces, as well as continuing successes by Abkhaz fighters, pushed the Shevardnadze government into a step that it could explain only on the basis of military and political desperation.[164] On October 8, after a meeting with Yeltsin in Moscow, Shevardnadze announced a reversal in policy toward Georgia's incorporation into the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS): after rejecting it consistently since Georgia's independence in 1991, he now stated he would press for incorporation.[165] On October 22, he signed the decree approving Georgia's membership.[166] On October 25-26, Georgia and the CIS finalized a collective security treaty, with the immediate consequence of paving the way for Russian and other CIS troops to secure the Poti-Tiflis-Yerevan-Baku railway line.[167]

Amidst confused fighting in October and November between supporters and opponents of Shevardnadze's administration in which numerous towns and villages in western Georgia changed hands, often several times, Russian Black Sea fleet forces sailed from Sevastopol to secure the ports of Poti and Batumi.[168] On November 8, 750 Russian marines and forty armored vehicles reportedly landed in Poti, taking control of transportation, railways, bridges, and the port.[169]

By late November, Abkhaz forces, taking advantage of fighting between the two Georgian groups, initiated large offensives in Abkhazian Svanetia, as well as Gali and Kodori. After two days of fighting, by November 29, Abkhaz forces had seized the eastern part of Svanetia province.[170] This fighting continued through December 1993, even as U.N. mediated peace talks continued and some prisoner exchanges took place.[171] In November and December, the Georgian government began to mark successes against the pro- Gamsakhurdia forces, finally defeating them, and by the end of 1993, the Georgian civil war was over.


When the Abkhaz broke the cease-fire in September 1993, the Russian government seemed surprised. It condemned the attack, issued calls to Abkhaz forces to cease the offensive and its accompanying human rights violations, and cut off electricity and telephone service to Abkhazia. It also supported resolutions in the Security Council condemning Abkhaz forces for breaching the ceasefire. At the same time, the Russian government criticized the Georgian government for refusing, once the attack was underway, to negotiate.

It is doubtful, however, that Russian forces in or near Abkhazia were as surprised as the Russian government seemed to be. Initiating an offensive as large as the one undertaken, in three different directions at once, must have required extensive movement of forces and resupply during the days leading up to it. In addition, Abkhaz forces brought heavy artillery, supposedly moved back from the frontlines, to bear very quickly in the fighting, suggesting either that less of it was moved than indicated, or that careful transport plans had been established to bring the guns forward. As Porter and Saivetz observe, "Russian forces stationed on the border between Abkhazia and greater Georgia, whose ostensible role was to police the ceasefire, made no attempt to forestall the attack."[172]

Russian policy during the battles immediately after the breach of the cease-fire appeared to follow four lines. First, the government condemned the breach and imposed certain sanctions on the Abkhaz. Second, Russian forces returned essential artillery parts to Georgian forces that had been turned over to them as part of the cease-fire, thus allowing the Georgians to return the guns to action. Third, the Russian Black Sea fleet participated in the humanitarian evacuation of tens of thousands of Georgians from Sukhumi. Fourth, Russia continued to sponsor peace talks under U.N. auspices between the parties.

With respect to the civil war between Georgian government and pro-Gamsakhurdia forces, Russian policy appears to have been explicitly predicated on Georgia's membership in the CIS.[173] On October 19, for example, Russian defense minister Grachev stated that Russia could not offer military assistance to Georgia since Georgia was not part of the CIS; he added, according to Western reports, that any other action might be interpreted as interference in Georgian affairs.[174] The next day, however, the Russian foreign ministry declared that once the Georgian parliament had endorsed CIS membership, Russia would send troops to protect the main railway lines.[175] On October 23, Georgia joined the CIS, and Russian troops moved swiftly thereafter to secure Poti, as well as the key rail lines.

Georgian membership in the CIS, and the deployment of Russian troops, was a hotly debated political issue in Georgia. Shevardnadze and his supporters argued that they had little choice if they wanted to defeat the political opposition and regain control of Abkhazia. Others argued that Russian intervention would mark the end of Georgian sovereignty.[176] Human Rights Watch takes no position on these political debates, but is concerned, based on the earlier Russian role in the fighting, about the serious possibility of human rights abuse that might arise from the deployment of Russian forces in Abkhazia.


The Abkhaz conflict lurched between sputtering fighting and shaky, de facto, and often-breached cease-fires in the first months of 1994. Although in theory, with the civil war against the anti-Shevardnadze camp seemingly over, Georgian government forces might have regrouped once again to battle their Abkhaz opponents, they seemed as disorganized as ever, exhausted, and dependent on the Russian military.[177] Abkhaz forces controlled most of the contested territory, and while shelling of villages and occasional engagements between the forces occurred each month, strategically significant battles were noticeably absent.

For example, on February 7, at least eight combatants died in a clash in the Gali region, and Georgian artillery reportedly blew up a bridge on the Inguri river.[178] Much more serious fighting flared two days later, reportedly leaving at least one hundred dead and over 3,000 homeless.[179] The following month, on March 24, Georgian forces were reported to enter Abkhaz-held territory at two places, Gulripsh and Orobaia, and engaging in clashes with Abkhaz forces.[180] Although some of these clashes were bloody and left civilians homeless or pushed out of their homes as refugees, they did not fundamentally change control of territory between the parties.

In fact, it appears that both sides believed that the strategically significant ground in the conflict had shifted from the battlefield to diplomatic ventures. The first round of talks between Georgians and Abkhaz, conducted under U.N. sponsorship in Geneva in December 1993, resulted in the Declaration of Understanding, the first lasting agreement between the parties. Following a second round of talks in January 1994, the two parties issued a joint communiqué agreeing to the deployment of Russian "peacekeeping" forces in Transcaucasia in order to strengthen confidence and security, and the repatriation of the some 200,000, mostly Georgian, refugees.

On February 10, the Abkhaz parliament declared independence from Georgia.[181] This declaration effectively repudiated the earlier U.N.- and Russian-brokered agreement that the status of Abkhazia would be determined through referendum. In further negotiations, the parties agreed that international peacekeepers should be dispatched, and in June Russia began deploying peacekeepers to the conflict zone.