Events in The Kodori Gorge**
Caucasian Institute of Mass Media
South Osetian Center for Humanitarian Initiatives and Studies
On October 16-20, 2001, that is, right at the time of fierce fighting in the Kodori Gorge, a group of representatives from the Caucasus Forum (CF), a network of peacemaking NGOs from the Caucasus region, conducted a monitoring mission in Abkhazia. The goal of the monitoring was to get first hand information, that is, from eyewitnesses, on events in the Kodori gorge. The members of the working group tried to completely distance themselves from all media reports, whether they be Georgian, Abkhaz or Russia, and work exclusively with primary sources of information, since the geographical compactness of Abkhazia makes it possible to meet with key participants and witnesses of events in a short time span. Despite the lack of time, the task was completed thanks to the assistance provided to the group in its work by both the Abkhaz leadership and, especially, nongovernmental organizations.
The group used a method of in-depth interviews and surveys of witnesses. Information was provided by prisoners of war (POW), local residents living directly in the war zone, victims, reservists, military personnel, officials from the foreign ministry and security services, journalists, and representatives of the UN mission, international organizations based in Abkhazia, as well as local NGOs.
The most valuable witnesses were of course combatants from both sides of the conflict. The Abkhaz authorities allowed us to talk with POWs for fairly long periods of time and without the presence of others. Of course we were not the first to meet with them; journalists from various agencies also had the opportunity to talk with them. Considering the preliminary "work" conducted with POWs, the working group was nonetheless able to get them to speak freely.
Thanks to the Caucasus Forum's contacts among combatants, we also worked with participants in the fightings from the Abkhaz side. This fact must of course be considered an asset of the program of ex-combatant meetings, but with one reservation: the potential of the program, in the opinion of all its participants, is sufficiently great for it to be used not only to conduct studies of already existing crisis situations, but also to prevent and resolve them. On the Abkhaz side, conscripts serving in the Abkhaz army were not involved in the fighting, only reservists were.
The third category of interviewees was civilians who had suffered from attacks by fighters who invaded the Kodori Gorge. These people were mostly rural residents of Armenian nationality. The value of the information provided by these people was in the fact that it was less subject to the influence of various mass media propagandizing the position of that or the other side.
The analysis of various sources was conducted taking into consideration the specifics of the situation in the region, and the desire of interviewees to defend their political views.
Chronology of events
As a result of the study it has been possible to more or less conclusively establish that some sort of "intervention" did in fact take place in the Kodori Gorge. According to the information received, the "interventionists" consisted of two groups that differed in all parameters: degree of combat readiness and level of equipment, ethnic makeup and, probably, goals for being there.
The first group, made up completely (or virtually completely) of ethnic Chechens and numbering about 100-120, was extremely well equipped, outfitted with the tools needed to wage war in the mountains and had good weapons. The fighters in this group were clearly experienced professionals. It is quite possible that this group was actually led by Gelaev or a person calling himself Gelaev. All POWs assert that he was personally present, but when questioned in greater detail it becomes clear that their testimonies are secondary, especially when it comes to victims and Abkhaz soldiers. It should be noted that if this was Gelaev, the prominent Chechen field commander, then this was not his first "visit" to Abkhazia. During the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict of 1992-1993 he headed one of the units of Chechen volunteers who at that time fought on the side of the Abkhaz. The situation was the same on the issue of whether there were Arab mercenaries in this division. No one among those who allegedly saw them was capable of differentiating Arab speech from any other speech with which they were unfamiliar. Furthermore, several times witnesses, when speaking about Arabs, could have confused them with representatives of Turkic-language peoples (there were references to phrases of clearly Turkic origin and "people who knew Arab - Azerbaijanians").
By all appearances, this group arrived in the Kodori Gorge at the end of July - beginning of August. Their appearance in this region, approximately at the beginning of August, coincided with the launch of a campaign of anti-Abkhaz rhetoric in the Georgian media. This division attracted virtually no attention to itself right up until the beginning of the events themselves, and existed autonomously in the mountains of the Svaneti region for more than two months. Naturally, these people had guides, evidently from among the local Svans. Some Abkhaz reservists asserted that they had contacts with Chechens who were in the Abkhaz Svaneti at the end of the summer, and they held negotiations on allowing them to spend the winter there. The Chechens were refused a request to be allowed to spend the winter at a deserted, campground high up in the mountains. There is no information on whether these were the same people as mentioned above.
The second group was much larger in number (about 300 people) and multiethnic. About 100-130 people were ethnic Georgians, including refugees from Abkhazia. The remaining members of this group were mostly representatives of Caucasus ethnic groups that traditionally practice Islam. They included Chechens, Kabardinians, Dagestanis, Balkars, Azerbaijanians, and even at least one Ukrainian. A large part of this division arrived in Abkhazia through Georgia in three groups, including in covered Kamaz trucks from villages in the Pankisi Gorge, then on barges across the Dzhvari reservoir. They did not stop along the way, according to Chechen prisoners, except to spend the night, and they were accompanied in cars by people in civilian clothing. They spent several days at a camp in the Svaneti foothills, where they were joined by Georgians, after which members of the first "Gelaev's" group guided them into the Svaneti mountains in smaller units. The units were formed according to various characteristics, some (Georgian) on an ethnic basis, and some ("Islamic") by motivation ("jihad").
These people were recruited in various places, mostly in the Pankisi Gorge but not only. The majority were people without military training who were lured to Abkhazia through deception. They were deceived in various ways, without much concern for plausibility. The Chechens and the more "religiously" inclined were told that they would be taken to fight in Chechnya with "faithless Russians;" the Georgians, who were mostly refugees from Abkhazia, were told that they are going to liberate their homeland; and it cannot be ruled out that some were simply promised the chance to steal. Weapons were only handed out to these people upon arrival in Abkhazia. They traveled through Georgia without weapons, and did not undergo even elementary military training. This group was made up mostly of poorly educated, deprived people, without a clear idea of where and why they were going. One of the prisoners, asserting that he had studied the Koran, in fact knew only what concerned Jihad, and even then in a distorted form. We could not get an intelligible answer to the question of how something like jihad can be carried out with Orthodox Christian Georgians against the partially Muslim Abkhaz ethnic group. One thing was clear: they were not prepared for the campaign, and were not outfitted with the necessary equipment. Some of them were in summer clothing.
Immediately upon arrival in Abkhazia, the members of the first group (others for some reason called them "scouts") arranged a kind of demonstration, apparently to frighten the other "fighters." An Azerbaijani was for some arbitrary reason picked out from among the members of the second group, accused of working with the FSB (Russian security service - ed.) and brutally killed in front of his comrades. Thus the members of the second group were intimidated. Then they began to be sent into the mountains with, at first glance, incomprehensible assignments, such as to climb up to some height, spend the night there and return in the morning. By that time they had already been given green bands, copies of the Koran and other Islamic paraphernalia. All this was lost in large quantities along the way, and the chaotic passage through the mountains left tracks. All these pointless excursions were conducted in an absolutely desolate area, and their goal was probably known only to the organizers of this, as later became clear, monstrous and inhuman endeavor. After a few days the members of the second group stopped being fed. All attempts by these hungry people to appeal to the "scouts" were brutally cut off. They began to understand that they had fallen into a trap. Some tried to escape but, not knowing where to go, they did not go up into the mountains towards Georgia or Russia, but descended to the coast, where they were either killed or taken prisoner. They were kept hungry for about a month, after which the second phase of the operation apparently began.
We did not manage to reconstruct a complete picture of the first attacks on villages in the Abkhaz part of the Kodori Gorge. The atrocities that fighters committed in their attacks on the Abkhaz villages were probably after all committed by the first group, the "scouts," but it is possible that the second group was let in on the robberies as well. Then the first group, the so-called "Gelaevtsy," disappeared. They somehow left Abkhaz Svaneti: they are not among the prisoners, and there are almost or completely none among the dead. The Abkhaz participants in the fighting asserted that, in their rare contacts with the "Gelaevtsy," the latter stood out with their high level of military training. With the departure of the "scouts," the hungry, untrained group was left without leadership and without food in unfamiliar mountains at the onset of winter. The Abkhaz reservists, who by that time had seen the results of the atrocities in the mountain villages, set off into the mountains and began to "cleanse" the gorge. The hungry, lice-ridden, completely unfit for combat units of the second group descended the gorge in order to beg or steel something edible. They raided cornfields, ate raw beans (they were found in the pockets of those who were killed), cleaned out all food reserves in villages, but did not touch valuables. And everywhere they ran up against units of Abkhaz reservists.
Analysis of events
The "interventionists" were doomed. The Abkhaz army is very combat ready and is built according to the Swiss principle. All men who have served in the army have weapons at home and are prepared to take up arms if necessary. The reservists, who have combat experience and know the mountains, are much more combat-ready than the army, which is built on the draft. And it was the reservists that the hungry and unprepared members of the second group of "interventionists" ran up against.
Military specialists with whom we spoke, including from the Abkhaz military, assert that this operation, on its own, did not and could not have made any military sense, even if all four hundred attackers had been experienced soldiers. After descending to the plains, the attackers were bound to face heavy armaments and artillery. Fighting tanks and armored vehicles with Kalashnikov rifles is senseless. Furthermore, such operations are possible in the spring, not in the fall, when mountain passes are blocked with snow and the attackers are cut off from their supply sources.
This operation was not a diversionary maneuver and part of a wider plan by the Georgian armed forces to attack Abkhazia, as Abkhaz military officials claimed, if only because there was no wider plan. If there had been, it would have become known, at least to the Georgian public. During the whole period that tensions were escalating, in the Gali area even the number of border crossings to the market in Zugdidi and back remained almost unchanged. These data were provided to our group by employees of the UN mission who conduct constant monitoring there.
A theory has been floated that the attackers were planning a raid on a city in Abkhazia similar to the Basaev raid on Budyonovsk. But then why was it necessary to take along three hundred untrained people - such operations are carried out only by experienced fighters. And if such a plan existed, there were no significant obstacles to its realization. We are referring to a sudden attack on a city, inciting of panic, taking of hostages and a quick retreat, the not holding of long-term positions. The attackers clearly did not have sufficient strength for the latter.
We did not manage to find any conclusive confirmation of the presence among the attackers of Arabs and other mercenaries from outside the former Soviet Union. One cannot completely rule out the possibility that people of any nationality were in the units of insurgents, but we did not find serious grounds to think that there was any significant number of Arabs.
The following factual conclusions can be made:
· First of all, one can say that the operation was in fact quite large-scale, which is surprising since such large divisions are very rarely used for fighting in the mountains.
· Secondly, the insurgent units passed through Georgia without hindrance: someone got them through the country.
· Thirdly, the operation did not and could not have made military sense. Political evaluations and interpretations of what happened were not a goal of the monitoring, but the obvious absence of a military point to the operation makes it possible to assume that this was a large-scale political provocation. Officials in Abkhazia, participants in the negotiating process, have voiced the view that the operation of the Chechen fighters in the Kodori Gorge was organized at the highest government levels. Georgia wanted to demonstrate that the government of Abkhazia is incapable of controlling its territory and thus, firstly, stir up anti-government feelings in the population, and secondly, force official Sukhumi to be more compliant in negotiations. However, the same representatives of official structures in Sukhumi think that the factor of September 11 was not taken into account, that is, the declaration of a "crusade" against "international terrorism." As confirmation of this, they cite the fact that, according to their sources, Eduard Shevardnadze received a very cool reception on his visit to the United States.
Another fact about the Kodori events of October 2001, without which the picture would not be complete but which, like much else, is shrouded in secrecy is the air bombing raids. The Defense Ministry of Abkhazia took responsibility for at least one of them. This does not concern the air raid in the first days of fighting, when jets without any markings appeared from behind the mountains and bombed the positions of the Chechen fighters. There was also a helicopter attack on the Armenian village of Naa, also anonymous. Fortunately, there were no casualties here as by that time most of the residents of this village had left their homes following the incursion by the "interventionists."
And, finally, one of the most tragic facts, not only in the Kodori events but also in the history of ethnic conflicts in the Caucasus over the past ten years: the downing of the helicopter carrying UN observers. According to the results of an investigation conducted by the mission's military specialists, the helicopter was shot down with a surface-to-air missile similar to the Stinger. Prisoners claimed to have seen the missile being launched in the area where the "Gelaevtsy" were located. It is impossible to mistake a UN helicopter for a military one because of clear identification markings.
Representatives of the UN mission, in conversations with us, had little to say because of the lack of information. The remark of mission head Dieter Boden that shots were already being heard in Sukhumi had the most resonance. This probably also served as a signal for many Georgian mass media to begin publishing stories to the effect that "Sukhumi will be taken any minute." Probably, Mr. Boden did not mean the sounds of firearms, which could not be heard in Sukhumi from Kodori, but explosions of artillery shells or air bombs, and his words were incorrectly interpreted.
The chief of the UN military observers in the area of the Abkhaz-Georgian conflict, Maj. Gen. Anis Ahmed Bajwa, said in a conversation that he was satisfied with the actions of the Russian peacekeepers, thanks to which "there have already been eight years without war." As is known, official Tbilisi, on the contrary, views the presence of Russian peacekeepers as a negative factor, and is demanding that they be replaced. Gen. Bajwa said that in the past year he had witnessed the leaders of both sides periodically make statements altogether not of a peacemaking nature. At the same time, a chain of events can be traced that indicates an escalation of the situation. It is difficult to say today what followed what, the events the statements, or the other way around, he added. The UN mission and other international organizations took all the necessary preparatory measures to receive refugees from Abkhazia in case the fighting intensified, and coordinated actions with Russian border guards (surprisingly, this has not been difficult so far).
Public opinion and the role of NGOs
The reaction of the public in Abkhazia to these events was extremely painful. The public found especially painful the participation of North Caucasians, and widely circulated mass media, including Russian. It should be acknowledged that, thanks to the work conducted by the government, and to a large extent the nongovernmental sector in Abkhazia, it was possible to ease the public's frustration somewhat, and at least partially "de-ethnicize" the conflict. Already in the final stages of the Kodori operation, it was widely believed among the Abkhaz population that the fighting was being conducted against representatives of international terrorism supported by the political elite of Georgia. It is remarkable that Tbilisi NGOs taking part in projects to build trust between the two peoples held a similar position regarding "support." This convergence of views can be considered an achievement of NGOs' work in conflict management. But, as in work with combatants, when a conflict situation arises NGOs are activated already post factum. There are, in our view, several reasons for this:
· NGOs do fruitful work in the area of conducting projects for various conferences and thematic meetings (women's, journalistic, youth, children's, etc.). But there is insufficient observation, evaluation and analysis of the current situation, and consequently, reactions to changes in the situation, including for the worse, can be too slow. In such a situation, the mass media usually remain the public's only source of information. When there are preliminary warnings, the NGO sector is still too weak to react to them in time. For example, after the monitoring under the aegis of the CF in the Pankisi Gorge in 2000, it became clear that an escalation of tensions could be expected. But we must self-critically note that we could not do anything to even try to prevent the events in the Kodori Gorge.
· As when projects began to be implemented, work is being conducted between NGOs in the capitals: Tbilisi - Sukhumi. In our view, at the current, high level of relations between Georgian and Abkhaz NGOs it is possible to localize the process, bring in representatives of communities in those regions through which the line of confrontation actually runs.
· The potential of ex-combatants is underused, including in building ties between the opposing sides, although in our case there was such a possibility.