Georgia/Abkhazia: Violations of the Laws of War and Russia's Role in the Conflict - ABKHAZ ATTEMPTS TO RETAKE SUKHUMI

Georgia/Abkhazia: Violations of the Laws of War and Russia's Role in the Conflict - ABKHAZ ATTEMPTS TO RETAKE SUKHUMI

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The months of shelling between December 1992 and July 1993 were punctuated with three major attempts by the Abkhaz to retake Sukhumi. The first came early on the morning of January 5, 1993, when Abkhaz forces attempted to cross the Gumista river frontally, together with a flanking attack from the sea. The attack succeeded in breaking through the Gumista front line to the village of Achandara.[124] The Georgians, reportedly taken by surprise, nonetheless managed to regroup and force back the Abkhaz later that morning. This attempt to take Sukhumi set the pattern of the two assaults that followed.

The second assault across the Gumista took place in mid-March 1993. The Abkhaz and Georgians in succession each tried to break out across the Gumista river. Each side failed, although Abkhaz units did succeed in taking control of certain heights in northeast Sukhumi, which permitted them to shell the town center with devastating consequences. One Georgian man from a village near Sukhumi who lived through this assault told Human Rights Watch:

The most serious attack came on March 16. At 12:30 a.m. the artillery shelling started. Abkhaz troops came in, spread out on foot, 100 meters from me and 500-600 meters from my house, entering the village. We were surrounded on three sides. There were fifteen persons in our cellar, the whole family. One son, my wife, father, brother, and in the connecting house was my brother's family. We moved in with my brother because it was farther from the front.

At 9 a.m. my father was walking toward that point. Seven Abkhaz soldiers took him behind the house and killed him. Soldiers told us: "There is a body behind the house. See if it belongs to you." We saw the body on March 18. He was brought home by my cousin and a friend. He had all his identification papers on him, but the page with his name on it in Georgian had been torn out. We recognized him from his tattoo. The middle finger of his right hand had been cut off. He had bullet wounds: two to his neck, two to his chest: one near the heart, and one near the middle. He had seven or eight bullet holes across his stomach. The left top part of his head was blown off: no ear, no eye. I am a fighter, so I know: these were bullets from a whole magazine.[125]

The third assault took place on July 1, and it also involved a simultaneous rear attack in which Abkhaz fighters landed by sea just south of Sukhumi and attempted to engage the Georgians from two sides at once. After several days of fierce fighting, this assault also failed, but barely. The Georgians responded with a counteroffensive, attempting to retake Shroma and other villages lying in the heights above Sukhumi. Shevardnadze, who spent much of this period at the front lines, was nearly hit by shrapnel as he travelled by car near Shroma.[126]

A man in his fifties described to Human Rights Watch the circumstances which led to his war injury in Sukhumi on July 1:

I was in the center of the city, near the new part of town. There were apartment buildings there, about a ten-minute walk from the hospital. It was about 6:30 a.m. I was walking to the train station to visit family in my home in Senaki. There had been some shelling at the moment that I was hit. There were sounds of shelling and shooting coming from different directions. I saw something dark and rather long falling in front of me, and I was hit. It exploded as soon as it struck the ground, about five or six meters from me. There were some people standing nearby and I told them where I lived and what my name was. I saw four or five others wounded in front of my eyes, and schools destroyed. The night after the operation the shelling was terrible. I thought the whole city was going to fall. It started up at 4 a.m. and then stopped again.[127]

The U.N. Security Council responded to this third wave of fighting in July 1993 by passing Resolution 849, calling for an end to the fighting and agreeing to send fifty military observers to Georgia to monitor a cease-fire – if the parties achieved one.[128]


The role of Russian actors in the conflict became considerably more pronounced during the first six months of 1993. This was precisely at a time when human rights abuses and violations of the laws of war attributable to heavy weapons obtained from Russian sources were becoming more serious. The Russian military took a direct role in hostilities on several occasions, and appears to have provided logistical support and supplies to the Abkhaz. At the same time, the Russian government went forward with prearranged transfers of certain bases and equipment to the Georgians, pursuant to agreements concerning the break-up of the Soviet Union. At the end of July 1993, it was largely Russian pressure that brought about the cease-fire in the war.

Russian policy appeared to follow three different lines during the first six months of 1993: forceful neutrality, intervention, and mediation and humanitarian aid.

Forceful Neutrality

In asserting its neutrality, the Russian government stated that it would defend its neutrality, and its humanitarian role in particular, with force if necessary. This policy was tested by a series of Georgian actions in January and February. On January 18, Georgian troops forced down a Russian Mi-8 helicopter that had reportedly been delivering humanitarian aid to the besieged inhabitants of Tkvarcheli under the auspices of the Red Cross; the crew was arrested for making an "illegal flight through Georgia." This was followed by Georgian weapons raids on the Russian Fourth Supply Base located in Tbilisi and on Russian units at Eshera. In addition, forty-five Russian soldiers were held for some time by Georgian forces at Lagodekhi, ostensibly to prevent weapons being taken from the base.

On February 20 the Russian Defense Ministry sent an SU-25 fighter-bomber to bomb Sukhumi in retaliation. An American journalist who witnessed the attack, Thomas Goltz, noted in a 1993 Foreign Policy article that Russian defense minister Pavel Grachev, who first denied that any raid had taken place, next claimed that Georgia had bombed its own citizens, and finally admitted that "a Russian attack had taken place in revenge for Georgian shelling of areas close to Eshera, a Russian defense research center and military base not far north of the Gumista River."[129]

It is clear from eyewitness accounts that the Russian retaliation, by targeting civilians, was conducted in an illegal manner. As Goltz describes it, the raid consisted of at least one SU-25 plane dropping a 500-pound bomb that "pulverized a two-story residence and [tore] off the back halves of four surrounding houses....miraculously, only one man – a local doctor – was killed outright, though his wife was said to have died later in a hospital." Afterwards the plane conducted a strafing raid; its "wing cannon and machine guns raked a street about 200 meters away from the bombing site, catching people outdoors who had emerged from the relative safety of their homes to help neighbors buried under the rubble ... that nobody was killed was a miracle, although there were around a dozen wounded."[130]

A Right to Intervene in "The Near Abroad"

Russia's forcible assertion of a neutral's rights has gradually become less and less distinguishable from its assertion of a special role to maintain peace and security in what it refers to as its "near abroad."[131] In the case of Abkhazia, this translated into increased Russian support for Abkhaz forces.

The February 20 air attack on Sukhumi was followed by other raids on the town, although the Russian defense ministry consistently denied involvement, saying that the "Georgians are bombing themselves."[132] By contrast, Shevardnadze was quoted as saying: "There is no other place [than Russia] where the planes could be coming from."[133] To Human Rights Watch, the weight of the evidence strongly indicates that the air raids were carried out by Russian forces.

This presumption becomes practically irrefutable upon examination of the March 19 air raid on Sukhumi, when Georgian forces succeeded in downing an SU-27 fighter-bomber. A U.N. military observer invited to inspect "both the downed aircraft and the dead pilot confirmed that it was the advanced aircraft the Georgians claimed it was and that the pilot's papers identified him as a major in the Russian air force."[134]

The air attacks over Sukhumi were the most verifiable case of Russian forces aiding the Abkhaz. But there were other instances in which the evidence is persuasive that Russian forces were involved in logistics and supply at this point in the conflict. It is very likely, for example, that Russian forces supplied extensive military assistance to the Abkhaz fighters during sea-borne landings in attempts to retake Sukhumi.

The evidence regarding the supply of heavy weapons and armored vehicles to the Abkhaz is more ambiguous. Heavy weapons and vehicles were ultimately available to the Abkhaz only from Russian sources. Those sources, however, spanned a range that leaves open possibilities of illicit supply not reasonably attributable to senior levels in the Russian military. The same holds true for ordnance supply. On the other hand, the speed and quantities with which 120mm guns and other heavy artillery appeared – as distinguished from man-portable mortars, for example – make Human Rights Watch believe that at least some heavy weapons, transport and fuel were supplied by Russian forces.[135]

Human Rights Watch is equally concerned that during 1992 and 1993 the Russian government proceeded to transfer to the Georgian government extensive military supplies, bases, facilities and transport under pre-existing bilateral agreements, knowing that these supplies would be used in a war in which the Georgians were at that very moment massively violating human rights and humanitarian law. Human Rights Watch is not aware that the Russian government placed, or sought to place, any conditions on the transfer of military supplies to the Georgian government.

Mediation and Humanitarian Aid

The third strand of Russian policy during the first six months of 1993 was a continuation of its earlier attempts to mediate an end to the conflict and bring humanitarian aid to victims. Russia continued to send humanitarian relief into the conflict, although increasingly it seemed to go to the Abkhaz side during the first half of 1993. Assistance to the besieged town of Tkvarcheli, with its large ethnic Russian population, remained a priority for Russian helicopter flights. Indeed, reports of landmines along the mountain highway to Tkvarcheli made helicopters the only safe means of transportation into the town by mid-1993.

Russian government mediation efforts were consistent with its self-declared role of ensuring peace and stability in the former Soviet republics. Yet Russian negotiating positions seemed to drift back and forth between a purely neutral position and implicit support of the Abkhaz.[136]


By the end of July 1993, repeated attempts to take Sukhumi, see-saw fighting in Ochamchira and the continuing siege of Tkvarcheli had pushed the total number of casualties in the war probably "into the middle thousands."[137] Prisoner exchanges became somewhat more common, sometimes under the mediation of the Russian military or the International Committee of the Red Cross. There were however continual rumors of battlefield executions of wounded and captured combatants on both sides, in obvious violation of the laws of war.[138] Levels of indiscriminate fire from heavy weapons, especially against Sukhumi and Abkhaz villages on the other side of the Gumista, were extraordinarily high during this period.

The forced movement of populations and the mass taking of hostages continued during the first half of 1993. An elderly Abkhaz man told Human Rights Watch that beginning in February 1993, "We were held hostage for six months [in the village of Adzubzha, Ochamchira region]. Georgian troops would come in and check on us to see that we were all in the house; they would count heads. We eleven were the last to leave the village. Everyone else was dead."[139]

Yet the situation is not adequately described without noting the continuing political upheaval in Georgia itself. The Georgian economy was in ruins. Tbilisi was in desperate straits, with severe shortages of food and fuel. Georgian mafia, sometimes associated with the Mkhedrioni, had the run of much of the city. The Georgian military, which nearly collapsed following the Abkhaz counterattack in the fall of 1992, was no better organized in 1993 and in fact barely hung on in the face of repeated Abkhaz attempts to retake Sukhumi. On May 6, Shevardnadze appointed 28-year-old General Giorgi Kharkharashvili – the same who had been forced to abandon Gagra – as defense minister, replacing acting minister Kitovani. In the same period Ioseliani, commander of the Mkhedrioni, was also forced to resign his government post (although he returned to influence shortly afterwards).[140]

The task of the Georgian military was complicated by the fact that Gamsakhurdia supporters in Mingrelia became more active in mid-1993, cutting the railways and roads. This made it more difficult for Georgian forces to resupply Sukhumi. Abkhaz successes in the Ochamchira region meant that at least on occasion, Sukhumi was surrounded on all sides except the sea, and Abkhaz forces sometimes even put Grad rockets on boats and fired them from offshore. At least some in the Georgian military saw the July 1993 cease-fire, even if not permanent, as at least a necessary respite.[141]