Georgia/Abkhazia: Violations of the Laws of War and Russia's Role in the Conflict - LAWLESSNESS AND ACCOUNTABILITY

Georgia/Abkhazia: Violations of the Laws of War and Russia's Role in the Conflict - LAWLESSNESS AND ACCOUNTABILITY

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Kitovani's declaration that Abkhazia was under Georgian control did not by itself settle matters militarily. The Georgians sacked Sukhumi (at least those parts belonging to the Abkhaz) while the Abkhaz regrouped and mobilized north of the city and pursued a desperate search for military supplies and Russian political support. The ethnically-based policies initiated by the Georgians in Sukhumi created simultaneously refugees and a core of fighters determined to regain lost homes.

Yet the Georgian attack on Sukhumi was only one part of a larger Georgian military strategy. A simultaneous Georgian attack from the sea had also taken the small resort towns north of Sukhumi, near the Russian border, including the town of Gagra. Gagra, like Sukhumi, remained in Georgian hands during the weeks following the August 14 attack, although there was fierce fighting in the zone during much of the month of September, various cease-fires notwithstanding. This had the effect of pinching the Abkhaz between Georgian forces. For military as well as logistical reasons, the Abkhaz had to break out.

Many human rights abuses – principally looting, pillage, and other outlaw acts, along with hostage-taking and other violations of humanitarian law, described in subsequent chapters – were committed by all sides throughout Abkhazia. Despite repeated denunciations of these abuses by both sides, little in fact was done during these opening months or subsequently to control the troops. As one ethnic Svan (Georgian) refugee told Human Rights Watch:

Beginning from the end of August, Abkhazians from Gagra would come to my house and take food out of the refrigerator. They were from the Abkhaz military headquarters. Chechens came in countless buses from the direction of Ritsa with automatic weapons. The buses were covered in leaves, camouflaged. We had maize, three cows, one ox, and hens. But soldiers took the cows. [They took] all the pigs from the village because they needed the food for themselves. They came many times, taking things piecemeal. They would come and look around the house and remember what you had, so you couldn't hide anything. We were hungry; we didn't even have bread. Once they came and asked us to kill the cow and to prepare the meat ourselves. They would take people to the river, threaten them with guns to get them to say who in the village had guns. Then they would go to that family. They took turkeys and hens. They also took the television. They came every day, not the same people every time. They would speak in Russian to us and sometimes spoke Abkhaz among themselves. When we left the house, we had only furniture left: beds and so forth. They had taken all the good things. They used to come and say: "Give us your money and gold!"[68]

Pillage and all the other criminal acts associated with it are prohibited by, among other things, customary international law of war as found in the 1907 Hague Regulations on the conduct of land warfare.[69] This does not require an extended legal analysis; no one in Abkhazia denies the patent illegality of the acts that transpired against the civilian population in Sukhumi, principally the Abkhaz, during this part of the conflict, nor their scale.

In the view of Human Rights Watch, Georgian commanders and military leadership are responsible for having undertaken warfare with troops from whom such acts might reasonably be anticipated. Senior Georgian government officials admitted privately that Georgian units were filled by "emptying the jails."[70] A prisoner in a Tbilisi jail confirmed this, and gave a detailed description of how some inmates were released on condition they fight in Abkhazia.[71] Even the military leadership has dubious backgrounds; Ioseliani, for example, spent seventeen years in Soviet jails on charges of armed robbery and other violent crimes.

Human Rights Watch believes it was plainly evident that the breakdown of order and control that occurred in the aftermath of the Sukhumi attack was likely to occur. It was foreseeable, and to that extent, the Georgian commanders who ordered the attack are responsible, along with the actual perpetrators, for the crimes of war that could reasonably have been foreseen to follow.[72] The failure to attempt to bring any of the perpetrators to justice only compounds these crimes.


Georgian forces had two principal objectives during September 1992. The first was to overrun the main Abkhaz stronghold at Gudauta from two sides – pushing north from Sukhumi and south from Gagra. Thus the main front lines were along two small rivers separating the two sides: the Byzp river, between Gagra and Gudauta, and the Gumista river, between Sukhumi and Gudauta. The second was to eliminate Abkhaz resistance in the Ochamchira region south of Sukhumi and the mountain town of Tkvarcheli and its surrounding villages.

Georgian forces used increasingly heavy weapons in their attempts to achieve these objectives during September, including air power. Although helicopters were used more for transport than for combat as the war progressed, in the early days (September 19-22), Georgian forces were reported to have used them in rocket, bombing, and strafing attacks in both the Ochamchira and Tkvarcheli zones. [73] Georgian forces reportedly also used "armored force" in the attacks. By September 30, press reports began to mention the appearance of Georgian SU-25 fighter-bomber aircraft at the Georgian-controlled Sukhumi airport. Clearly, a significant escalation in firepower was underway on the Georgian side, simultaneous with yet another cease-fire agreement, on September 24, which like so many before and after, turned out to be a failure.


Although the situation in late September was relatively calm in Sukhumi (excepting gunfire across the Gumista river) heavy fighting was underway, around Gagra in the north. Gagra is a small resort town on the Black Sea, spread out in a relatively narrow band on either side of a coastal highway. It is a rich agricultural and tourist zone with orchards, vineyards and beaches. It sits immediately south of Gantiadi and Leselidze, two small towns on the Russian border.

At the very end of September, Abkhaz forces began a concerted drive across the Bzyp' river front toward Gagra. Press reports described the Abkhaz forces as 3,000 to 4,000 men composed of Abkhaz national guardsmen and north Caucasus volunteers. Fighting was bitter as the Abkhaz sought to drive north along the main highway. Many homes and structures were damaged from shelling and mortar attacks; the destruction was still visible during Human Rights Watch's visit a year later, in August 1993.

The Abkhaz were armed with small arms and light weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades.[74] They did have some tanks and armored vehicles of their own, including at least several T-72 tanks.[75] Abkhaz forces had now also acquired both heavy and light artillery, as well as variously-sized mortars.[76] Thus by October 1992 both sides had most of the types of weapons systems that have characterized the conflict; in later months only the quantities increased.

Georgian forces around Gagra were fewer in numbers than the Abkhaz - hundreds rather than thousands - but they reportedly had more tanks and armored personnel carriers. These vehicles may not have been very effective against Abkhaz fighters in Gagra's hilly terrain, however, and were therefore often confined to the main road. Georgian forces were commanded by a young officer, Giorgi Kharkharashvili, who was later appointed Defense Minister by Shevardnadze.

Ethnic Abkhaz and Georgians interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported a see-sawing battle line, with Abkhaz infantry attempting to take out Georgian vehicles with rocket-propelled grenades from houses bordering the roadway. The Georgians responded with shelling from their vehicles. Both sides caused considerable damage to structures in the area. These accounts do not by themselves establish violations of the laws of war; the damage caused to the civilian structures instead must likely be regarded as legitimate collateral damage on either side.

Testimonies given to Human Rights Watch show that at least some residents were trapped in their homes as the fighting came upon them. For example, one Abkhaz resident of the area (still living there in August 1993) recounted how the fighting swept up the road, "faster," she said, "than anyone thought possible. We wanted to run, but it was too late. So we hid in our houses, or else we went to other people's houses down the street," away from the main highway. Another resident (also still living there in August 1993), an Armenian woman, pointed out her house directly on the main road, and said: "I took my children and went to relatives living nearby, in the direction of the sea. My house was hit by gunfire, but we are still living in it." However, it appears that massive violations of the laws of war that occurred in connection with the fall of Gagra were related less to the fighting than to its aftermath.