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The Georgia-Abkhazia experience

15-05-1999

The further north one travels, the more the countryside resembles one endless scrapyard. Ruins of war and past economic chaos lie side by side, seamless and indistinguishable. Unfinished yet already decaying buildings alternate with destroyed homes. Rusted metal and broken concrete project everywhere, sometimes still sheltering landmines. Water spouts from ruptured pipes. People shuffle along the roads from one cheerless spot to another. All around, except for a few patches of stubborn endeavour, the land has gone to seed. The 1992-93 Georgian-Abkhaz conflict may be over - at least as a military dispute - but life has not returned.

Refugees, tens of thousands of them, are still holed up in " temporary shelters " : a kind-hearted family here, a former " five-star " hotel there, converted bizarrely into a towering refugee camp (no lifts to any of its 15 floors but otherwise impeccably clean). The hurt remains very strong: "The war started outside our house," says Marina, a refugee now living on the top floor of the former Iveria hotel in Tbilisi, "but we don't know where the animosity started. " One thing which emerged time and again from the various focus groups held as part of the ICRC's People on War consultation project was the sense of deep bewilderment, on one side of the front line at least, at the causes of the conflict. It was not unlike hearing parents lament that their adolescent children had left home in an inexplicable rage, slamming the door behind them; the adults saying " but we were so close " , and their children insisting that they just wanted to be left alone to be themselves.

And maybe it is because there was formerly such a close relationship that one of the greatest cruelties of this war - as highlighted by the project - was the spreading of rumours. Again and again one would hear such dreadful stories - football played with human heads, or fighters seen roasting human flesh - that no-one on either side, surely, could believe them to be true. And yet all fear they might contain some truth; but for the sake of the past, for the sake of decency and for that of the future, many who spoke of such horrors would hastily add that they were only rumours and condemn whoever might have dreamed them up.

All this, and more, emerged from the focus groups, in-depth interviews and questionnaires that the People on War team conducted in this part of the southern Caucasus. Those consulted included soldiers from the Russian peacekeeping force and former fighters from both sides, many of whom spoke with bitterness of their homecoming as defeated warriors and now lived on drink and what they could steal - robbery and break-ins being another Georgian-Abkhaz leitmotif. Then there were adult men too young to have fought but with fixed though odd impressions of warfare: " according to the rules of war," said one , "you have three days to loot [enemy houses], so [the enemy] didn't have time to rape our women " . There were displaced women begging to be allowed back after seven years: " I locked my front door and put the key in my pocket, thinking that I would be back home the next morning " . Finally, there were the old, who were little more than outcasts.

But the consultation also showed a kinder face to the war. One soldier remembered an old man of 80 or so who crossed the lines to retrieve the body of his dead son. Because he was too weak to carry the bo dy himself, the soldier and some companions bore the body back to the dead fighter's home town in enemy territory - all this in the midst of war. Not quite an illustration of a " rule of war " , perhaps, but proof nevertheless that compassion can exist on the battlefield and that it does not take so very much to overcome hatred.

The People on War project obviously laid troubled consciences bare. Peace, or rather the current cessation of hostilities, has come as a dreadful hangover after a wild party. A common emotion is shame, and people on both sides insist repeatedly, " You should have come before, it was so beautiful " . There is an underlying fear that nothing will never be the same again, and that an irredeemable sin has been committed (against the land, against others and against the self). People affected by the Georgia-Abkhazia conflict are today groping for a way forward, not altogether sure that one exists. What little trade there is, even, is a paltry attempt at getting back to normal.

To be sure, fighting between long-standing neighbours, if not relatives (there were and are many mixed marriages in this theatre of conflict), produces extreme and sometimes contradictory feelings. There were rapes and terrible killings. There were widespread looting and destruction, as in the story of the fighter who ran away, leaving his wife and children in the family home. When he returned he found them dead and the house torched. In his dealings with the enemy, according to someone who knew him well, "he went insane after that - who wouldn't? He became utterly merciless. That's how people become so cruel - and although they need our understanding they also have to be stopped " . To which, as a distant echo from across the front line, another former fighter shouts: " Why should I be ashamed of being a fighter?"  

Why indeed? The whole purpose of the ICRC's People on War project - worldwide - is to give a hearing to such questions.

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 International Committee of the Red Cross  

 Campaign Unit  

 May 1999  

 Ref. LG 1999-090-ENG