THE FALL OF GAGRA AND ACCOMPANYING HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS
Gagra fell to Abkhaz forces on October 2-3, 1992. Western news agencies reported some 100 dead fighters; Russian news sources reported some 300 dead on the Georgian side alone. As the Georgian situation grew more desperate, Russian forces evacuated the Georgian commander Kharkharashvili and some of his men by helicopter to Russian territory.
The fierce combat that characterized the Abkhaz drive up the coast was compounded, on the night of October 2, by the flight of thousands of Georgian refugees. As it became apparent that Georgian forces would not hold the town, the Georgians fled to Gantiadi and Leselidze on the border with Russia. Their flight was the mirror image of the flight of Abkhaz refugees in August when Georgian forces seized Gagra. Unsurprisingly, many of the violations of human rights in October matched those in August. Many fighters on the Abkhaz side were Abkhaz refugees who had fled Georgian forces earlier, and it is evident from refugee accounts that they took revenge for what they themselves had been forced to endure.
One elderly Georgian woman who lived through the October attack in Gagra recounted the following:
Fierce fighting began on October 1, so the street was empty. There were only four women in the street; everyone else had left. I was with my husband. Evening was quiet. I wanted to go to the neighbors' to call my daughter and say we were OK. When I returned home I was surprised to see a lot of armed people on the street. They were quiet. I mistook one of them for my Georgian neighbor, and I said, "How are you?" in Georgian. He grabbed me by the wrist and said, "Keep quiet." I wasn't afraid for myself; I thought they had killed my family. He asked me in Russian, "Where are your young people? We won't kill you, we'll kill them." I said they weren't here, that there were only old people left.
The soldiers heard voices coming from the cellar of a neighboring house, a Georgian house. [They] asked me who was there. I knew my husband had intended to go there. They told me to get the people from the cellar, and said that they were going to blow up the house. One soldier recognized me and said: "Aren't you the one who works as a cashier?" I hugged him and threw myself at his feet and said, "I've worked for twenty-eight years. Have you ever heard anything bad about me?" He said, "I'm not going to kill you. Call your husband, but not the others." I said, "God be with you." He said: "There is no God; there is only Allah." I said: "OK. Let it be Allah." I said: "I'll call them, but what shall I tell them?" I thought it would be better for them to kill my husband so as to give the others a chance to escape and be safe.
My husband came out. I said I needed help tying up the cow. He yelled at me: "Woman, is this a time to be thinking of a cow?" The soldiers told him: "Come here, boy!" and they began beating him. One began to hit him in the stomach and kick him with his feet. I thought they were going to kill him. I thought of the young people. I knew that a young man, about 33, was sleeping in a house not far away. I ran to the house and told them the Chechens were here. I told his mother, "Try to hide your son. They are killing my husband." Then I ran back. This took five minutes. My husband was no longer there. I saw the same young guys shooting at the house, a two-story house. There were about fifteen men, some in guardsmen's uniform, some in civilian clothes. They were speaking Russian. I said, "Have you killed my husband?" [They said:] "We haven't killed him yet, but we will. We told him to call out all the young people. Then he ran away." Then they said: "We'll kill you instead."
They brought over a blind man and his brother, who always stayed with him. They began to beat the blind man, his brother and his wife with a gun butt, calling him "dog!" and kicking him. He fell over. I saw blood. One soldier said: "We won't kill you, but where are the young girls?" I said there weren't any. The soldier told me: "Mother, go home and don't show yourself again."
They would come every day beginning October 2. I used to tell them that my son-in-law is Abkhaz; everyone knows him. So they would tell me not to leave the house. My son-in-law told me to say that it was his house. He even wrote his name on the outside. But they would say: "Speak to me in Abkhazian," and when I couldn't, they said: "This can't be your house."
Thus, the pattern of abusive acts by fighters seen when the Georgians took Sukhumi was repeated by Abkhaz fighters when they found themselves on the winning side. Georgian neighborhoods were looted and sacked, and those Georgian residents who had not fled had every reason to live in great fear. Abkhaz refugees who had lost their homes in other places began to take over homes abandoned by fleeing Georgians. As one Georgian resident of Gagra told Human Rights Watch: "There was a lot of theft, mostly by Chechens, Cossacks and Russian mercenaries who had been promised apartments and residency permits in the area."
Abkhaz forces, however, apparently initiated steps to bring looting and other crimes under control. Human Rights Watch learned from both official and unofficial sources, for example, that in the wake of the fall of Gagra, Abkhaz forces executed an Abkhaz fighter for looting. Scenes of the execution were reportedly broadcast on Abkhaz television as a warning against further looting; it is not clear what effect, if any, broadcasts had on looting and pillage committed by both sides in the conflict.
ETHNICALLY-BASED HOSTAGE-TAKING AND POPULATION EXCHANGES
In addition to extensive acts of random abuse and personal profiteering by fighters, the conflict in Abkhazia has also been characterized by hostage-taking and forced movement of population groups. The war witnessed several phenomena in this regard: there were acts of hostage taking of individuals, either to enable exchanges or to extort money; and there were efforts alternatively to confine ethnic population groups to, or expel them from, areas controlled by forces of another ethnic group.
The phenomenon of hostage taking of individuals was evident on both sides of the conflict. For example, a Georgian man married to an Abkhaz woman, who lived with his family in a village outside the provisional Abkhaz capital of Gudauta, told Human Rights Watch that he believed that, on account of his wife's ethnicity, he had not personally been at any risk. Nevertheless, he and his family had gone to live with her in-laws in a nearby village. As the fighting worsened, he had come under "more and more pressure from the villagers. They would taunt and threaten me if I went out into the street. They accused my family of harboring a Georgian, and said bad things about my wife for not having married an Abkhaz." In the end, he reported, he did not dare go out on the street at all, and decided to flee. But the villagers stopped him when he tried to leave. "They told me they had my name on a list, and I could not leave until I was given permission, because they needed me to make sure that Abkhazians in Georgian hands were not mistreated. I was terrified, but what could I do?"
Thus, this Georgian man was kept as an all-purpose hostage, useful as a member of the Georgian population and kept for the sake of the Abkhaz population. This phenomenon individuals and individual families being prevented from leaving occurred in many parts of the conflict zone; the victims were both Georgians and Abkhaz.
Some hostage-taking may also have been conducted primarily for the purpose of extorting money from those wanting to leave. A Georgian refugee from the village of Bzyp', near Gagra, told Human Rights Watch that when she left in late December, "you needed ten grams of gold and 100,000 rubles to leave Abkhazia and cross the border. Chechens and Abkhaz would come to the house and tell us how much money would be needed to leave. I believe my husband is dead because he had no money to leave. It is expensive." Another Georgian refugee told Human Rights Watch: "They destroyed my home in February , and I had to move to my sister's. They told me that if I sold my furniture to my Abkhaz neighbor I could at least get some money. My Abkhaz neighbor gave me 20,000 rubles for it. A ticket out cost 25,000 rubles. The neighbor added the 5,000 and asked me not to tell anyone."
In some places whole groups of families an ethnically homogeneous village, for example, or a neighborhood were not allowed to leave. Human Rights Watch received testimony from Georgian residents of Gagra who attempted to flee when Gagra fell to the Abkhaz and were trapped by the fighting. After the fighting died down, they attempted to leave but were not allowed to go. One resident recounted that her family had not been allowed to make the twenty-minute trip to Leselidze near the Russian border, even though they were simultaneously threatened with death if they did not leave. She reported that their house was looted several times. She described a group of families trapped in the same situation in Gagra: unable to leave town, but at the same time unable to safely move about in town. Such testimony about mass hostage-taking was characteristic of what Human Rights Watch was told on both sides of the conflict. Yet the purpose of holding these hostages was not for anything immediate; they were all-purpose hostages for possible use in future negotiations.
In addition to mass hostage-taking for the purpose of engaging in territorial negotiations in the future, fighters are also known to have taken mass hostages in the midst of battle in order to force the other side to break off an attack or for other military purposes. It happened with frequency throughout the conflict, particularly in the contested Ochamchira region. For example, Abkhaz fighters reportedly seized around 800 Georgian civilians in the village of Kutol in the Ochamchira region on January 20, 1993. Nine were then freed to deliver an ultimatum to the Georgian commander to break off the attack that was taking place. In a similar situation in the Georgian village of Kvirauri, outside Tkvarcheli, Abkhaz fighters were reported to have taken some 500 villagers hostage, threatening to kill them unless Georgian forces ended their offensive in the Ochamchira region.
Hostage-taking of any kind is strictly forbidden by international humanitarian law, and indeed counts as a grave breach for which infractors will be held individually criminally liable under the 1949 Geneva Conventions and 1977 Additional Protocol I; as such it is equivalent to a war crime. Yet hostage-taking affected many thousands of people on both sides throughout the conflict. So far as Human Rights Watch can determine, neither side ever applied any sanction for the taking of hostages.
To the contrary, one peculiarity of the Abkhaz conflict has been the development of sophisticated mechanisms for the exchange of hostages and populations on a mass basis. Human Rights Watch interviewed numerous refugees on both sides who had been exchanged as part of highly organized, computerized lists of hostages on each side. One Abkhaz woman, for example, explained to Human Rights Watch that she had wanted to flee Ochamchira, but was not allowed to do so by Georgian forces until her name had been entered into a computer, matched with the name of a Georgian (or in some cases, several Georgians, as there were significantly more Georgians seeking to leave Abkhazia than Abkhaz seeking to get in), and then approved for exchange. She received a special paper indicating that she had been officially exchanged and was permitted to travel.
Both Georgian and Abkhaz civil authorities characterized this work of automating population exchanges as essentially humanitarian in nature. Refugee officials on both sides expressed great pride in how they had overcome difficulties to create an efficient and "fair" mechanism for hostage exchange. On both sides, Human Rights Watch was shown lists of those who had been exchanged, and how names were shared, matched, and then approved for exchange.
These officials were greatly surprised when Human Rights Watch expressed strong disapproval of the procedure, pointing out that taking hostages in the first place was absolutely contrary to international law, and that automating the exchange process did not solve the problem but indeed compounded the breach of the Geneva Conventions and 1977 Additional Protocol I. Civilians on either side had an absolute right not to be held hostage, irrespective of whether the other side was taking hostages; the laws of war disallow any right of reprisal in the matter of taking hostages. Human Rights Watch condemns in the strongest terms all mechanisms, no matter how apparently benevolent or humanitarian, that collude in the keeping of hostages.
The practice of mass hostage-taking gradually became synonymous with population exchanges aimed at producing ethnically homogeneous zones. As the Abkhaz fighters established dominance over Abkhazia, most of the population exchanges amounted to the departure of Georgian refugees from the territory. Although many of those who left departed "voluntarily," at least in the sense that they were not pushed out at gunpoint, the great majority of Georgian civilians who fled Abkhazia did so because they feared they would be attacked once under Abkhaz control. Many of those who remained departed under Abkhaz pressure, for example in Gagra. Human Rights Watch received numerous testimonies from Georgian refugees of Abkhaz fighters coming into their homes and telling them to leave or be killed, and committing pillage clearly aimed at intimidating Georgians into leaving.
THE RUSSIAN ROLE
Slightly over two months into the war, in October 1992, Russia began to make clear its concern about the inviolability of its military installations in the region, and resorted to concrete action. Agence France Presse reported on October 26 that Moscow had ordered Russian forces to return fire when fired upon. A Russian military laboratory at Eshera had been repeatedly shelled since early in the conflict, and the new policy was designed to make clear that Russia would not tolerate provocations aimed at its troops.
The new policy was quickly put to the test. On October 27, a Russian Mi-8 helicopter, allegedly carrying humanitarian supplies, was reportedly fired at with cannon by a Georgian aircraft. Russian forces responded by launching an air-to-air missile from a SU-25 fighter-bomber against the Georgian aircraft.
The Russian government claimed that such actions represented no departure from neutrality, but were aimed at enforcing the legal rights of a neutral not to be interfered with. Later, on November 19, a special cease-fire in the Sukhumi area allowed the evacuation of Russian troops from the Russian Defense Ministry's 903rd Independent Radio-Technical Center and the 51st Russian Army Road Depot near Sukhumi. These evacuations were completed by November 28.
Although the Russian government continued to declare itself officially neutral in the war, parts of Russian public opinion and a significant group in the parliament primarily Russian nationalists who had never been favorably disposed toward the Georgians began to tilt toward the Abkhaz at least by December. A political watershed was reached when on December 14 a Russian army helicopter, reportedly evacuating Abkhaz civilians from the besieged mountain town of Tkvarcheli to Gudauta, was shot down. Reports of the dead ranged from fifty-two to sixty-four, including twenty-five children. Although the Georgian government denied responsibility, few believed it, especially in Russia. This incident was apparently one reason why "during the autumn of 1992 the fighting in Abkhazia increasingly impinged on the Russians' collective consciousness."
The tilt translated at first into a series of parliamentary attacks on the Yeltsin government's official position, and soon the debate took on a military dimension. The Russian military opposed the transfer of various bases, equipment, arms, and vehicles to Georgian control, as demanded by the Georgian State Council on October 3, 1992 (and pursuant to preexisting bilateral agreements.) Indeed, Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev stated that "Russian troops would resist forced appropriations of military and housing facilities and that any such attempted seizures could provoke clashes with the Russian Armed Forces."
It was also evident from other Russian military statements that there was support for the Abkhaz cause within the military establishment. For example, several key articles published in Krasnaya svezda, the daily newspaper of the Russian Ministry of Defense, "fundamentally challenged Yeltsin's [neutralist] approach, asserting that many members of the Russian Armed Forces in fact sympathized with the plight of the Abkhaz." Against this trend, some of the previously agreed transfers of equipment to the Georgian armed forces took place as scheduled.
It also appears that the shooting down of the Russian relief helicopter on December 14 was a catalyst to the assertive Russian government view that Russia has a special right and obligation to maintain peace and security within the former Soviet republics. Yeltsin declared in a speech to the Civic Union coalition on February 28, 1993 that the world community ought to recognize and grant Russia "special powers as the guarantor of peace and stability in this region." The Russian government has been increasingly assertive of this view, not just with respect to Abkhazia, but other conflicts in the former Soviet republics as well.
These sometimes conflicting currents of Russian policy have existed side by side with Russian humanitarian actions during the Abkhaz conflict. The Russian Black Sea fleet evacuated Russian and Abkhaz civilians from the conflict zone during the initial fighting; Russian military helicopters also evacuated Russian and Abkhaz civilians from Tkvarcheli once it came under attack by the Georgians. They continued to keep it supplied with food and medicine during the Georgian siege.
These actions largely benefited the Abkhaz side; yet the Russian Black Sea fleet also evacuated thousands of Georgians when the Abkhaz counterattacked and retook Gagra in October. The Russians also allowed many thousands of Georgian refugees fleeing from Gagra to cross the Russian border, and then transported them to Tbilisi. Prisoner-of-war exchanges have often taken place under Russian sponsorship. One Russian diplomat remarked that while the humanitarian strategy was not consistent with any other calculation of Russian "interests," it was consistent with the concept of Russia's "special responsibility" to maintain "peace and security in the near abroad, since they cannot maintain it themselves."
The question remains whether, by the end of December 1992, Russian forces, under orders or acting on their own, were supplying the Abkhaz with weaponry or other security assistance. The Georgian government accused the Russian military throughout the fall of 1992 of supplying the Abkhaz with equipment particularly T-72 and T-80 tanks through its base at Bombora (near the Abkhaz stronghold of Gudauta). But it also claimed that the "Russian generals in the area had acted on their own initiative."
It is possible that the Abkhaz obtained their equipment, at this juncture of the fighting, through purchases from unofficial sources, or from their own raids on Russian installations. Yet the sudden presence of armor, tanks, and heavy artillery among the previously lightly armed Abkhaz in the fighting between October and December 1992 realistically leaves little room for any conclusion except that some parties, within the Russian forces, decided to supply the Abkhaz. The equipment had to come from somewhere, and given that the Georgians did not supply it, the likely source was Russia.
FURTHER FIGHTING IN 1992
Gagra was not the only site of fierce fighting during the fall of 1992. At the end of October, Abkhaz forces attacked the Ochamchira region and fighting spread from one village to another over many months continuing into the winter of 1993-94. Meanwhile, the conflict was at a stalemate along the Gumista river front at Sukhumi. In addition, the mountain town of Tkvarcheli held by the Abkhaz but home to many ethnic Russians considered sympathetic to the Abkhaz was under siege by the Georgians from the fall of 1992 onwards.
The net effect of the Abkhaz counterattack during the fall of 1992, however, was that by the end of December 1992, the Abkhaz had regained all the territory north of the Gumista river, or in other words, everything north of Sukhumi to the Russian border. They also held Tkvarcheli and several other remote mountain towns, while they continued to fight inconclusively with the Georgian forces for control over the Ochamchira region southeast of Sukhumi.
Ochamchira, apart from its own importance as a territory, was critical to control of Sukhumi's supplies and logistics. If Ochamchira (and especially its vital railway line) fell to the Abkhaz, then Sukhumi as a Georgian garrison would be cut off. The Russians, too, were concerned about the integrity of the rail line, as a vital link to Nagorno-Karabakh and other points beyond Georgia.The situation of the Abkhaz conflict was, finally, complicated by the fact that the contested Ochamchira region bordered on the zone of strongest Gamsakhurdia support in the Georgian civil war, Mingrelia. In the midst of battling Abkhaz forces, Georgian forces discovered on several occasions that they also had to battle supporters of ousted President Gamsakhurdia. Yet on various occasions, Gamsakhurdia forces announced that they would fight under Georgian government command in common cause against the Abkhaz.
The human rights situation by the end of 1992 remained appalling. In the see-saw fighting that characterized this period of the war, fighters on each side took the opportunity to sack and pillage the places of the "wrong" ethnicity that they occupied. Lawlessness prevailed, official pronouncements that looters would be severely punished and even executed notwithstanding. Both sides undertook to hold large populations hostage refusing to let frightened and harassed civilians leave the area voluntarily quite plainly for the sake of being able to negotiate for territory or other advantages down the road. Still others were pushed out or left under conditions of dubious "voluntariness."
VI. INDISCRIMINATE FIRE DURING THE STALEMATE AT THE GUMISTA RIVER, SUKHUMI, DECEMBER 1992 TO JULY 1993
The Gumista river runs along the north edge of Sukhumi about half a mile from the center of town. It is narrow, shallow and borders citrus orchards. During certain times of the year, the shores of the river are swampy. Along its bank on the Sukhumi side stands a row of residential apartment buildings. As the Abkhaz were driven from Sukhumi in August 1992, they succeeded in holding off the Georgian forces at the Gumista river. Throughout the fall of 1992, each side fortified its position. In particular, each side brought up to the front line heavy artillery, mortars, armored vehicles and rockets to complement the machine guns and light arms already present. Over time, too, both sides heavily mined the area with both antipersonnel and antitank mines, leading to extensive injury to civilians, and posing a long-term threat to the safety of the civilian population well after the fighting has stopped.
The standoff at the Gumista river continued during 1992-93; despite several failed offensives by the Abkhaz, and at least one serious counterattack by the Georgians, the line held. In between the Abkhaz offensives, the war along the Gumista front with Sukhumi held by the Georgians and, on the other side, a series of villages reaching back to Gudauta held by the Abkhaz fell into a stalemate. Each side tried to wear down the other with a practically unceasing barrage of shells and rockets. In the course of this long-distance duel of artillery, mortars and rockets, the civilians of Sukhumi were the primary victims.
Both sides at the Gumista river were guilty of engaging in indiscriminate attacks. Bombing and shelling began with the opening attack on Sukhumi in August 1992. In the fall of 1992, there were many instances of shelling, including in the Sukhumi region. For example, Human Rights Watch was told by a Georgian who had been resident in Sukhumi at the time that Sukhumi had been bombed or shelled by the Abkhaz from the far side of the Gumista river as early as October 3, 1992. The Russian press reported in October 1992 that Georgian forces were shelling the villages of Adziubzha, Kindgi, Tamysh, and Tkvarcheli. Besides land-based guns, the Georgians reportedly used aircraft in bombing runs; on October 27, it was reported that a Georgian SU-25 fighter-bomber bombed Eshera. By the night of November 2, 1992, Sukhumi had come under a heavy Abkhaz artillery attack sufficient to cut electricity to the city; this also had the effect of shutting off the water supply, forcing the population to rely on wells and springs for most of the fighting.
Beginning in roughly December 1992 and January 1993, both sides greatly escalated the level of artillery, mortar, and rocket attacks against Sukhumi on one side and Abkhaz villages on the other. One Western military observer described the warfare along the Gumista river extending up to the villages of Shroma and Akhalsheni in the hills above Sukhumi as the "static warfare of World War I reduced to a teacup. Every time the Abkhaz make an assault to try and take Sukhumi, it's like seeing the battles of Ardennes reduced to a space the size of Malibu, California."
He added with respect to the artillery duels that took place during the months between assaults that "of course the frontal ground attacks go nowhere, and after they're repulsed everyone goes back to lobbing stuff at each other from a safer distance."
Artillery, mortar, and rocket attacks are not per se forbidden by the laws of war; they are prohibited only if conducted in an indiscriminate manner. The laws of war define an indiscriminate, and hence prohibited, attack in article 51(4) of 1977 Additional Protocol I:
Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited. Indiscriminate attacks are:
(a)those which are not directed at a specific military objective;
(b)those which employ a method or means of combat which cannot be directed at a specific military objective; or
(c)those which employ a method or means of combat the effects of which cannot be limited as required by this Protocol;
and consequently, in each such case, are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without discrimination.
Among others, the following types of attacks are to be considered as indiscriminate:
(a)an attack by bombardment by any methods or means which treats as a single military objective a number of clearly separated and distinct military objectives located in a city, town, village or other area containing a similar concentration of civilians or civilian objects; and
(b)an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.
Evidence that these attacks were indiscriminate within the meaning of the law is overwhelming. While Human Rights Watch does not dispute that there were legitimate military targets on both sides of the Gumista river it is evident from interviews and physical inspections of damage that combatants on both sides, far from satisfying their obligation to attempt to distinguish between civilians and military targets, simply sought to fire at or in the direction of any inhabited space, whether the city of Sukhumi or the Abkhaz villages.
Typical of the situation encountered by Human Rights Watch is a Tass photograph appearing in Jane's Intelligence Review, described in the caption as: "mortarmen of the Georgian 23rd Mechanized Brigade bomb Abkhazian positions around Eshery. Accuracy must be minimal without a sight." In a visit to the Sukhumi frontlines in August 1993, Human Rights Watch found several such instances of complete lack of aiming or sighting among both Abkhaz and Georgian forces. Discussions with the fighters revealed that it seemingly had never occurred to them that there was any reason to distinguish between military and nonmilitary targets across the front. "It's all part of the war," said one Abkhaz fighter at the Gumista river. "We don't want to destroy Sukhumi, because it's Abkhaz, but we'll flatten it if we have to." A Georgian fighter told Human Rights Watch that "if civilians don't want to get hit, they should get out of the way. It's their problem, not ours."
There were considerable numbers of civilians in the regions under shelling and bombardment during all these months, especially in Sukhumi. The pre-war population of Sukhumi was about 120,000; at the height of the fighting, and after the Abkhaz had been driven out, its population fell to some 50,000, mostly Georgians. Human Rights Watch interviewed some of these civilians, on both sides, during its mission in August 1993. One refugee reported to Human Rights Watch:
At the end of December, I used to wake up at 7:30 a.m. because there was shooting every night. I slept badly, so I would wake up from exhaustion. One morning, I was woken by the building shaking. I jumped up from fear and terror. I heard neighbors running around. I was sick to my stomach. I can't find the words to describe it. A shell had hit the top floor. The guy who usually sleeps there by a miracle wasn't there that night. His mother was in the back bedroom, which saved her. First one shell fell, then a second. It didn't flare; it just hit. It blew out doors and windows. All of the dishes were broken. We had high morale, and some stayed patriots. But when I saw my neighbor, a young guy, walking in the street crying and screaming....His wife and neighbor had been killed. Her head was blown off and they couldn't find it. That's when I decided to leave.
Human Rights Watch also interviewed a man whose house in Sukhumi had been hit with a shell in February 1993. He recounted that he had been asleep with his family when the shell slammed into the top corner of his house, taking off much of the roof, collapsing part of the second floor, and injuring his wife. A woman in Sukhumi showed Human Rights Watch the remains of her house, which had been hit with a shell and then burned inside. Medical workers, including international relief workers, while unable to provide complete statistics, confirmed that there had been thousands of civilian casualties in Sukhumi over the course of the shelling attacks. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which had established a small field station in Sukhumi, was forced to sandbag it heavily, and even then did not consider it safe. Human Rights Watch conducted an informal visual survey of Sukhumi in August 1993 and concluded that at that time, the city was perhaps 30-40 percent bomb damaged, 20-25 percent severely. According to eyewitnesses, shelling had been occurring on virtually a daily basis.
The villages and small towns of the Abkhaz side had fewer civilian inhabitants to start with, and so there were fewer casualties and smaller targets. However, the type of destruction was essentially the same. An ancient monastery and cultural site had been hit severely, for example, as had apartment houses and individual homes still inhabited by residents who had few other places to go.
A particularly egregious feature of this pattern on both sides of indiscriminate fire has been the use of Grad rockets. These rockets are long rockets mounted in vehicle-based hollow tubes. The tubes are arranged in racks, with up to forty in a set; the rockets are then fired in barrages. A key military purpose is to slow the advance of infantry. The rockets have a maximum range of twenty- one kilometers but have relatively little accuracy. They are highly mobile, since they are mounted in their tubes on the back of a truck, highly lethal to unprotected victims and, when used in mixed civilian and military zones, notoriously indiscriminate. They have become almost a signature weapon of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and are highly effective, if illegal, when used as a weapon of civilian terror.
Human Rights Watch saw launchers on both sides. Human Rights Watch also saw considerable evidence of the destruction caused by these weapons in zones occupied by civilians on both sides. It saw houses where civilians were living that had been hit on several occasions by Grad rockets. There were often characteristic fragments of the weapons still at the site. Civilians spoke of the Grads with special fear. Because of their fragmentation and tendency to come in barrages, they saw them as particularly horrifying weapons.
Human Rights Watch also saw direct evidence that both sides had deliberately deployed and used major weapons within civilian zones itself a violation of the rule against indiscriminate fire. For example, walking through Sukhumi, Human Rights Watch came upon two 120mm guns, aimed in the direction of the frontline and fully operational, set up in the courtyard of a civilian apartment building where civilians were still living. On the Abkhaz side, Human Rights Watch also saw 120mm artillery pointed at Sukhumi set up in the middle of civilian-occupied apartment houses.
Human Rights Watch therefore concludes that both sides committed violations of the rule against indiscriminate fire and the deliberate shielding of artillery in civilian areas. Human Rights Watch believes that the forces on each side were targeting inhabited zones per se, without any attempt to discriminate between civilian and military targets. As a method of war, this is clearly illegal.