Update No. 97/01 on ICRC activities in Georgia
15-12-1997 Operational Update
No longer at war, but still struggling to resolve differences
Georgia experienced war with the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 1993. Since concluding a cease-fire in 1994 Georgia and Abkhazia have been trying to settle their differences at the negotiating table. At a meeting in August this year, the Georgian President and the Abkhaz leader made a joint undertaking not to use force to settle their differences, and not to let hostilities and bloodshed resume. This is an encouraging move, but problems persist over the status of Abkhazia and, despite talks held to establish economic relations, the trade embargo on the region has not been lifted. And while large-scale hostilities are a thing of the past, sporadic clashes between irregular armed groups continue to claim victims.
For the time being the situation remains deadlocked, despite the number of international players involved in promoting the peace process. The mandate of UNOMIG (United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia) in western Georgia and southern Abkhazia has been extended until 31 January 1998. The major mediator is the Russian Federation, whose peace-keeping troops remain in the buffer zone along the Inguri river.
A cooperation agreement signed two years ago has put Georgia and South Ossetia on a more stable footing. Relations were further consolidated in November when the Georgian President paid a first visit to the region and issued a joint declaration with the South Ossetian leader stating their peaceful intent.
Vulnerable groups: their plight is not over yet
Perhaps the most tangible measure of peace would be the return of some 200,000 displaced people from western Georgia to Abkhazia, from where they fled after the fighting in 1993. To date, no concrete measures have been taken to that effect. For the displaced population this means another winter away from their home areas, in even more precarious circumstances as international humanitarian assistance has been cut. Furthermore, the abduction of two foreign military personnel and bombing incidents in public places have generated fear and insecurity among the population in Western Georgia.
While all of Georgia is wrestling with economic problems, the situation in Abkhazia is particularly bad. The economic embargo has led to a sharp deterioration in living conditions, the disruption of the social system and the widespread need for assistance. In addition, the general economic collapse has resulted in uncontrolled crime and violence. Non-Abkhaz minorities in particular, such as elderly Georgian and Russian pensioners without any relatives nearby, are sitting targets.
As in so many contexts that seem to be of neither war nor peace, former conflict zones have not been demined and anti-personnel mines and other exploding devices remain a widespread threat to the lives and limbs of the people living there. Fresh mines are still being laid.
The fact is that three years after the cease-fire, vulnerable groups are still suffering the humanitarian consequences of the conflict.
The ICRC's response: protection and assistance for vulnerable groups
In Georgia, delegates have access to all places of detention in the country. The ICRC visits some 300 detainees in some 20 prisons. They include people held for conflict-related or security reasons and common-law offenders who are vulnerable in terms of their age, sex etc. The fact that the Georgian President has formally granted the ICRC unrestricted access to all detainees, including security detainees still under interrogation, has facilitated the ICRC's prison work considerably and, it is hoped, will prompt other governments in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to follow suit.
Together with the authorities, the ICRC is working to upgrade conditions in places of detention. Following evaluation by a sanitary engineer, water and sanitation projects will shortly begin in the prisons where it is most needed. These projects are essential in view of the widespread tuberculosis problem affecting prison populations (see Health activities ). Amputee detainees now also have the opportunity to be fitted with artificial limbs by a visiting ICRC orthopaedic technician.
In Abkhazia, the ICRC has access to all eight places of detention, where delegates visit more than 30 detainees. Work is under way to consolidate access to prisoners by means of a formal agreement with the authorities.
In Abkhazia, the civilian population as a whole is affected by the general rise in violent crime but me mbers of minority groups, mostly Georgians, Russians and Armenians living alone, are particularly vulnerable. The ICRC is increasing its presence and building up a network of contacts in the worst-affected areas in order to monitor the situation and encourage the authorities to ensure the protection of those at risk.
The ICRC also keeps a close watch on the situation in the remote Kodori valley, where the population, mainly ethnic Svans, lives in poverty and isolation. During recent field missions, the ICRC made contact with the authorities and police, provided assistance for 1,700 particularly vulnerable people and distributed Red Cross family messages.
Restoration of family links
As reliable communication links out of Abkhazia have still not been restored, the Red Cross message network remains a necessity for relatives cut off from one another by the cease-fire line. Since the beginning of the year, some 70,000 messages have been handled through the network. The ICRC provides training and material support to enable the Georgian Red Cross to become more involved in the service. It also reunites families and transfers vulnerable people out of Abkhazia at their request.
Tuberculosis (TB) programme for prisoners
TB is a widespread health hazard across CIS countries and the risk of contracting it in prisons is up to 50 times higher than outside. Based on the experience gained in the course of its pilot TB programme in Baku, Azerbaijan, the ICRC will launch a similar project in one of the two Tbilisi prison hospitals. The projects are designed to treat the disease effectively in prisons, thereby reducing the r isk of spreading resistant forms of TB to the population. All the scientific data gathered in the course of this endeavour will be shared with the authorities and other organizations such as WHO.
The essential condition for the ICRC to initiate the programme was that it should enjoy the full support of the Georgian authorities and be carried out as part of the national TB programme implemented as of this year. A preliminary prevalence and resistance study in all places of detention is in progress and will be completed by the end of the year. On the basis of its findings, the ICRC will draw up a comprehensive plan of action enabling implementation to begin in 1998. An agreement with the Ministry of the Interior has already been signed.
Assistance to health facilities
In western Georgia, the ICRC regularly deliver surgical supplies to the Respublika hospital in Zugdidi, where war-wounded from the Gali region are treated. Since August 1997 it has also been assisting a polyclinic in the Zugdidi region which is the only source of proper medical care for some 60,000 displaced people in the area.
Because of the embargo, Abkhazia is entirely dependent on international medical aid. The ICRC provides five hospitals with surgical and anaesthetic materials. In the wake of military operations in the region, the number of patients with war wounds or landmine injuries has doubled over the past few months. It also supplies essential medicines to two polyclinics and a dispensary in Sukhumi, practically the only places where persons belonging to minority groups are treated. These facilities also provide home care for elderly and disabled people. The ICRC has purchased a car for them and provides petrol, enabling medical staff to visit people in remote areas. These programmes will continue in 1998, and will also include staff training and on-the-spot monitoring by an ICRC medical delegate.
Physical rehabilitation of the war-disabled
In cooperation with the health authorities, the ICRC runs orthopaedic projects for the war-disabled, many of them landmine casualties, in Tbilisi and Gagra (Abkhazia). On average, 31 patients are fitted in Tbilisi and 6 in Gagra each month. In 1998 a three-year diploma course for prosthetic/orthotic technicians sanctioned by an internationally recognized body will be introduced for the two workshops'local staff members, who have so far been trained on the job.
Relief activities: focus on Abkhazia
While the ICRC's approach to the southern Caucasus is tending away from large-scale emergency food distributions towards closely targeted agronomy programmes aimed at self-sufficiency, the degree of destitution in Abkhazia is such that direct food distributions are still necessary. The ICRC is providing nutritional assistance to some 65,000 people in need. In urban areas, they include elderly and disabled people, orphans and families with many children. The assistance consists of staple food such as flour, sugar and cooking oil, according to season supplemented by food preservation kits, warm clothes, blankets and candles. In rural areas, the ICRC focuses on people who have no access to land and no support from their communities.
Other programmes: community kitchens, agronomy projects and home assistance
Across Abkhazia, 24 ICRC-run kitchens provide one cooked meal a d ay to the most vulnerable elderly and disabled people, at present some 7,000 beneficiaries, but their number is steadily increasing. The programme is carried out by the Finnish Red Cross in the form of a project delegation, with the ICRC retaining overall responsibility.
To provide the community kitchens with fresh products and stimulate the local economy, the ICRC makes seed and fertilizer available to local collective farms; part of the harvest then goes to the kitchens. An ICRC agronomist will provide technical support in 1998. In addition, seed potatoes and vegetable seeds will be distributed to some 21,000 vulnerable people in rural zones, and 300 families will receive bean and sweet corn seeds.
The home assistance programme, begun in 1996 and carried out in cooperation with the local Red Cross branches in Sukhumi and Tkvarcheli, aims to assist bed-ridden patients living alone (covering personal hygiene, house cleaning and delivery of a cooked meal). It is planned that the Swedish Red Cross will carry this out during 1998 as a project delegation benefiting around 1,000 people.
Preventive activities: promoting international humanitarian law and principles
To obtain compliance with humanitarian rules for the conduct of military operations, the ICRC organizes presentations and seminars on the law of armed conflict regularly for Georgian, Abkhaz and Russian troops as well as police in western Georgia and Abkhazia. The aim for 1998 is to sign a cooperation agreement with the Georgian military authorities and set up systematic training programmes on the law of armed conflict. Efforts are under way to develop similar cooperation with the Abkhaz authorities.
The schools programme designed to familiarize 11- to 12-year-olds with the principles underlying humanitarian law has been evaluated in 160 schools in Georgia. In view of the encouraging results, it will be extended to older pupils in a test run next year and will also include Abkhazia and South Ossetia. With its university programme, the ICRC works to have humanitarian law included as a compulsory subject for students at law and other faculties. As in 1997, selected lecturers and students will take part in the humanitarian law course and competition organized by the Moscow delegation in 1998.
A needs assessment and feasibility study will be carried out early next year with a view to launching a mine awareness campaign in Georgia and Abkhazia in 1998.