Beslan Kobakhia: ‘This war should be ended by those who started it’
An end has to be put to this war. No war lasts for ever
Demis Polandov (Prague) Ekho Kavkaza
The well-known Abkhaz public figure Beslan Kobakhia is our “Guest of the Week.”
Demis Polandov: Beslan, we have got into the habit of contacting you always in connection with a specific event. Either there’s an international congress, or you tell us your reaction to a given situation, but today we want to talk about you in our regular Guest of the Week programme and look back to certain episodes in the 1992-1993 Georgian-Abkhaz war. We are currently marking the 20th anniversary of those events in which you participated. As far as I remember, you took part in negotiations with the Georgian side about an exchange of prisoners of war. Would you tell us what exactly you did during the war?
Beslan Kobakhia: You are right that this year marks the 20th anniversary of our victory in that war. I want to say that even though 20 years have passed, those events have not faded. They are etched into one’s memory as if they literally happened only yesterday. In that respect I came to understand better the veterans of the Second World War, for whom that long-ago war is still as close as the [1992-1993] war is for us. I can recall literally every day how the war started. It took me a long time to understand that this was a genuine full-fledged war. In 1989, there was a clash between people from western Georgia who wanted to force their way into Abkhazia, and within Abkhazia there were clashes between Georgians and Abkhaz.
Those were the first steps, but the centre intervened swiftly to defuse the situation: Soviet troops entered Abkhazia literally within three-four days and averted what happened several years later in 1992 when we found ourselves facing Georgia alone, outside that common state which had been known as the Soviet Union. When that happened, I kept thinking back to 1989 and hoping that in a couple of days the nightmare would be over, but it went on and on. What’s more, the situation spread, many things happened, and people started being killed in large numbers. I tried to analyze the whole situation and figure out various solutions. But whichever approach I tried, it always culminated in war.
Demis Polandov: So you think this war was in effect inevitable?
Beslan Kobakhia: No, of course it could have been avoided, but you must understand that even after 20 years the world still does not know the truth about this war, and the truth is very simple and does not require a great deal of thought. The truth is that the Abkhaz did not attack Georgia, they were living a perfectly normal peaceful life in their own country. It was Georgia that attacked Abkhazia. This was of course the work of the then leadership of Georgia which had come to power totally illegally by ousting the legitimately elected president. They destroyed the centre of Tbilisi without showing any concern for their own citizens. So why in that situation should they have shown any concern for the Abkhaz?
Demis Polandov: Beslan, when the war broke out, did you take part in the first contacts with the Georgian side? How did they come about? Was there a dialogue of any sort?
Beslan Kobakhia: Of course there was. The first was in Gagra after Vladislav Ardzinba signed the treaty in Moscow. At the beginning of September 1992 Yeltsin, Shevardnadze and Ardzinba signed a ceasefire agreement. When Ardzinba, returned a tripartite commission was established and I was included as one of the Abkhaz representatives in this Abkhaz-Russian-Georgian commission. We found ourselves in Gagra, which at that time was under the control of the Georgian State Council forces. The first meeting with the people we were fighting against took place in Gagra. As it happened, I knew a lot of people in Gagra and the local leadership at that time. I must tell you that many people, local residents, did not take up arms and refused to face up to what was happening. That was the true situation.
After Gagra I went to Sukhum where I held a lot of meetings, and the same thing happened again in Sukhum as in Gagra, the people I had known before the war tried to distance themselves from what was happening, at the start of the war they did not take up arms en masse and fight, but after [the Georgians] tried again to trick us hostilities resumed, and at that point we carried out a successful attack by our own forces, Abkhaz armed formations took control of Gagra and advanced as far as the border with the Russian Federation. After that, Georgian military propaganda began spreading myths of how atrocities were perpetrated in Gagra, how the Abkhaz and Chechens played football in the Gagra stadium with severed heads of those they had killed.
When Paata Zakareishvili and Giga Baramidze came as representatives of the Georgian side for talks with us during the next ceasefire, they said during a meeting with Vladislav Ardzinba that such incidents were known and that the same thing happened in Gagra. Vladislav Grigor’evich began to explain to them that it was not true, then he said: “Well, if you don’t believe me, go to Gagra together with Beslan Kobakhia and the Gagra mayor. The two of them will go with you, talk to whoever you consider necessary.” We got into a car and set out for Gagra, on the way they could see from the car windows that there were no crowds of armed men hanging around doing nothing, there were no instances of that during the entire war, every tiny plot of land was cultivated, ploughed, cleared of rubbish, and there were road police manning the patrol posts.
Our guests were struck by the situation, because talking between themselves they compared the situation in Sukhum and Gudauta and had to admit that our discipline was extremely high. We arrived in the part of Gagra where the stadium is, there were still a very large number of Georgians there. We went to every single house, Rustam and I let [Zakareishvili and Baramidze] talk to whomever they wanted, and not in our presence. They finally said to us “Many thanks, we are convinced this is not true and there were no atrocities.” Unfortunately this myth continues to circulate, and unfortunately the people who were with us and who now occupy senior positions in Georgia do not refute it.
Demis Polandov: Beslan, given that you continued cooperating with Paata Zakareishvili until the very last days of the war, when did the mass exodus of the [Georgian] population take place?
Beslan Kobakhia: I want to tell you that Paata Zakareishvili did a huge amount during the war to save people, Abkhaz, Georgians, Russians, Armenians and people of other nationalities living in Abkhazia. That is a fact, and I can tell you more: possibly the greatest level of cooperation was that achieved between our politicians – the Abkhaz commission, which I headed, for the defense of the rights of the population and prisoners of war, and the Georgian commission headed by Paata Zakareishvili. Why did we manage to reach agreement? Because we were absolutely equal, we had absolutely equal status, and at the start of the war when a prisoner exchange took place it always turned out that we had more Georgian army prisoners than there were Abkhaz who had been taken prisoner by the Georgian side. And the first exchange of prisoners was all for all.
Then we began to realize that we were exchanging all for all, then an Abkhaz surfaces who was not in the list of prisoners of war, and another, and another, and we had already handed back all the Georgians. And that started to create problems for us. I’ve already mentioned that discipline in the Abkhaz army was far higher, and any serviceman taken prisoner by the Abkhaz was immediately taken to the centre. The central authorities kept a tally of all the prisoners of war and kept them all together in one place. That made it possible for us to guarantee they remained alive, there was not a single case during the war of prisoners of war who reached the central authorities disappearing. I stress that we did not lose a single one.
Demis Polandov: When you say “reached you,” is that a reference to the incident with the government of the autonomous republic?
Beslan Kobakhia: Yes, that’s a separate story. Those people were not brought to us, to the central authorities, while we kept a comprehensive record of those who were captured. So we decided we would stop the practice of exchanging all for all and exchange one person for another. Otherwise there was no way we could have succeeded in having those [Abkhaz] prisoners of war who ended up in the hands of the Georgian armed formations brought together in one place [where] they were under the control of the central authorities. That, by the way, had the desired effect: the Georgian military began to act more responsibly after we began exchanging one for one. I must say that we managed to exchange a lot of people.
Our authority was of course not limited to prisoners of war. We did a lot of work with the civilian population -- in Gudauta and the Gagra district a large number of Georgians who wanted to leave [Abkhazia] remained under [Abkhaz] control, and in Sukhum and Ochamchira there was a large number of people of different nationalities who also wanted to leave. During the periodic ceasefires we tried to help those people. After the war we tried to calculate and came up with a figure of up to 50,000 people whom we had been able to help.
Twenty years on I write in my works that an end must be put to this war. No war ever lasts indefinitely. In our case, unfortunately, the war still continues today. That is not the Abkhaz’ fault. To my mind, those who started it should end it. I mean the Georgian central government. Today new people have come to power in Georgia who bear absolutely no responsibility for what their predecessors did. I think that they will find it easiest to assess this war, draw a line under it, acknowledge the current situation, and begin trying to build a new relationship that will lead to an improvement in relations between our peoples. I very much hope this will be the case.
This interview was published by Ekho Kavkaza on February 16th, 2013 and is translated from Russian.
"In the first place, the Ossetian war [1991-92] in Tskhinvali had just ended. The Georgia National Guard suffered heavy losses. We were exhausted. That’s why I thought it was reckless to go into Abkhazia. But I was told that the 13th-14th August was a good time to launch a military operation because the Russian Parliament was in recess. Unfortunately, we entered Abkhazia in a very disorganized way. We didn’t even have a specific goal and [REMEMBER the claims about protect the railway] we started looting villages along the way. As a result, in the space of a month we managed to make enemies of the entire local population, especially the Armenians." - Gia Karkarashvili [General - Army Commander of the State Council of Georgia] [11.52 sec. Absence of Will]
UNPO November 1992, Mission to Abkhazia, b. Human Rights and Cultural Destruction
Ms. Margery Farrar
Mr. Alvaro Pinto Scholtbach
Dr. Linnart Maell
Dr. Michael van Walt van Praag
Ms. Charlotte Hille
"With respect to human rights violations by Abkhazian and allied forces, the delegation was able to determine that some human rights violations had occurred against Georgian civilians. However, those acts did not appear to be systematic, and they never reached anything like the scale or gross nature of those committed by the Georgian military. Witnesses reported that Abkhazian authorities have been taking steps to prosecute and punish Abkhazian perpetrators of human rights violations.
Georgian prisoners of war reported they were being well treated by the Abkhazian authorities. They were relaxed, shared the same rations with Abkhazian troops, and appeared to be on relatively good terms with their captors. The Mission was particularly interested in investigating allegations of atrocities by Abkhazian troops in Gagra at the time of the recapture of that city from Georgian forces. The delegation was able to find absolutely no evidence to support two major allegations: One was the story that hundreds of Georgians had been driven into a stadium and killed; the other was that Abkhazian soldiers had gone to the hospital and killed doctors and patients there. What did seem to have taken place was the burning of many houses of Georgians who had fled the area before the Abkhazian advance. Members of the delegation saw many such houses, and were told by the Mayor of Gagra that such acts had occurred, but that he had taken measures rapidly to prevent them from continuing."
"The Mission obtained sufficient evidence to conclude that gross and systematic violations of human rights had occurred at the hands of Georgian troops in Abkhazia throughout the period since August 14, 1992; that these included serious violations committed against Abkhazian and other ethnic population groups in cities and villages; that civilians were the primary victims of Georgian abuses; that Georgian attacks were directed against persons identifiable as Abkhazian, and that particular attack was directed against Abkhazian political, cultural, intellectual and community leaders; that in addition to Abkhazians, also Armenians, Russians, Greeks, Ukrainians, Estonians, and other non-Georgian minorities in Abkhazia have suffered similar treatment by Georgian authorities; and that removal or destruction of the principal materials and buildings of important historical and cultural importance to Abkhazians has taken place in what appears to be an organized attempt to destroy Abkhazian culture and national identity.
With respect to allegations of gross violations committed by Abkhazian troops in Gagra, the Mission found evidence of burning of numerous houses of Georgians in a region captured by Abkhazian forces from Georgian forces. The Mission was not able to find any basis to allegations of mass killings.
When Georgian troops under general command of Defense Minister General Tengiz Kitovani first entered Sukhumi on August 14, Georgian soldiers attacked nonGeorgian civilians, beat them, killed many, robbed them, and looted their houses and apartments. Reports of attacks on Abkhazian, Armenian, Russian, and other nonGeorgian minority civilians, including killing, torture, and burning, looting or smashing of houses or other belongings, originate from many regions of Abkhazia under Georgian military control and for the entire period since August 14.
Medical authorities in Gudauta reported that virtually all men who had come through the Gudauta hospital, after having been held prisoner by Georgian authorities, appeared to have been severely tortured. Many had sustained multiple broken bones and burns from cigarettes or other objects on various parts of their bodies. Some had their ears partially or completely torn off.
In substantiation of what appeared to be more than isolated instances of extreme atrocities, medical authorities reported an Abkhazian woman brought in for autopsy, who had been shot both down her throat and up her vagina. They reported a man brought for autopsy (after a large sum was demanded by Georgians for his body) whose genitals had been cut off and stuffed in his mouth. The delegation took eyewitness testimony of other atrocities against Abkhazians and members of other non-Georgian ethnic groups, and further accounts of atrocities abound among these groups.
On the one hand, the activities of Georgian soldiers may be partly attributed to what Georgian authorities admitted, even maintained, was lack of control and discipline in the armed forces. A Georgian commanding officer taken prisoner by Abkhazian forces in Gagra, confirmed reports that Georgian troops had committed atrocities in Gagra. Mr. Eduard Shevardnadze himself agreed that there is no regular army in Georgia, and Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Kavsadze, Chairman of the Georgian State Committee for Human Rights and Nationality Relations, admitted that soldiers had vandalized and looted and said they were “out of control.”
The “out of control” explanation is not satisfactory, however, because evidence points to authorization or encouragement by the Georgian authorities for attacks on Abkhazian and other non-Georgian civilians. Georgian soldiers who are reported to have entered Abkhaz homes and to have beaten, raped, or otherwise terrorized the inhabitants and to have looted or destroyed their belongings, are repeatedly reported to have had a list with them of names and addresses of Abkhazians to visit in this manner.
The attacks therefore did not appear to be at random. Georgian soldiers and police are reported to continue to ask persons in the streets, in particular in bread lines, to show their identity papers. When an Abkhaz is found he or she is seriously abused. The result is that the greatly diminished number of Abkhazians left in Sukhumi hardly dare to leave their rooms.
Concerning the direction given by Georgian military authorities in relation to the conduct of battle and the behavior of troops during and after battle, Georgian Minister of Defense Kitovani is reported to have told his troops that under the law of war soldiers have the right to loot for three days. The Geneva Convention forbids the use of cluster bombs, yet Abkhazian medical authorities in Gudauta report having treated a number of cluster bomb wounds in victims brought from battle areas. Cluster bombs reportedly were used extensively during late August by Georgian forces and have continued sporadically since then.
Another extensively used weapon is the “GRAD” artillery system, which delivers a large number of shells in a chess board-like pattern, causing heavy losses to the enemy and to civilians when used on civilian targets. Additionally, the Commander-in-chief of Georgian troops in Abkhazia, General Georgiy Karkarashvili warned in a televised formal address to the Abkhaz and Georgian people in Sukhumi on August 24, that “no prisoners of war will be taken” by the Georgian troops, that “if 100,000 Georgian lose their lives, then [on the Abkhazian side] all 97,000 will be killed”; and that “the Abkhaz Nation will be left without descendants.” The delegation saw a video recording of this ominous speech.
In contrast with such evidence, it appears that several weeks after Georgian troops were brought into Gagra, and while that area was still under Georgian control, Georgian troops stationed in South Ossetia were flown to Gagra. The commander of those troops claimed they were sent by Georgian authorities in Tbilisi to restore order and to protect the civilian population in that city from ongoing rampages by Georgian troops already there.
It is also worth noting that, in contrast to the considerable number of Georgian civilians who are reported to have cooperated with Georgian military authorities in some of the acts against Abkhazian civilians and members of other minority populations, there are very frequent accounts from Abkhazians and others of local Georgians helping these Abkhazians and other persons in danger to escape, sometimes at severe risk to themselves. system, which delivers a large number of shells in a chess board-like pattern, causing heavy losses to the enemy and to civilians when used on civilian targets. Additionally, the Commander-in-chief of Georgian troops in Abkhazia, General Georgiy Karkarashvili warned in a televised formal address to the Abkhaz and Georgian people in Sukhumi on August 24, that “no prisoners of war will be taken” by the Georgian troops, that “if 100,000 Georgian lose their lives, then [on the Abkhazian side] all 97,000 will be killed”; and that “the Abkhaz Nation will be left without descendants. “ The delegation saw a video recording of this ominous speech.
The Mission heard evidence from six Abkhazian intellectuals and professionals from Sukhumi concerning the destruction or looting of the contents, with some destruction of the buildings themselves, of the Abkhazian University, the offices of several Abkhazian cultural journals, an Abkhazian language publishing and printing house, an Abkhazian secondary school, the Abkhazian Institute of Language, Literature, and History, the Abkhazian National Museum, and the Abkhazian National Archives. Testimony concerning the burning of the National Archives building was confirmed by a Georgian witness employed in a Procuratorial office in Sukhumi at the time.
Abkhazians interviewed in Gudauta and elsewhere believe that the Georgian government is engaged in a systematic attempt to destroy the Abkhazia as a nation and the Abkhazians as a people. They point to the systematic attacks and the killings of Abkhazian civilians; and to the destruction and looting of Abkhazian homes. They also point to General Karkarashvili’s television statement and to the destruction by Georgians of the principal Abkhazian institutions of cultural or historic significance in Sukhumi. They see all these as a continuation of an ongoing Georgian government policy, pointing to passages in an earlier book by now exiled Georgian President Zviad amsakhurdia, in which Gamsakhurdia apparently advocates the elimination of the Abkhazian intelligentsia and other extreme and oppressive policies.
With respect to human rights violations by Abkhazian and allied forces, the delegation was able to determine that some human rights violations had occurred against Georgian civilians. However, those acts did not appear to be systematic, and they never reached anything like the scale or gross nature of those committed by the Georgian military. Witnesses reported that Abkhazian authorities have been taking steps to prosecute and punish Abkhazian perpetrators of human rights violations.
Georgian prisoners of war reported they were being well treated by the Abkhazian authorities. They were relaxed, shared the same rations with Abkhazian troops, and appeared to be on relatively good terms with their captors.
The Mission was particularly interested in investigating allegations of atrocities by Abkhazian troops in Gagra at the time of the recapture of that city from Georgian forces. The delegation was able to find absolutely no evidence to support two major allegations: One was the story that hundreds of Georgians had been driven into a stadium and killed; the other was that Abkhazian soldiers had gone to the hospital and killed doctors and patients there. What did seem to have taken place was the burning of many houses of Georgians who had fled the area before the Abkhazian advance. Members of the delegation saw many such houses, and were told by the Mayor of Gagra that such acts had occurred, but that he had taken measures rapidly to prevent them from continuing."