Update no. 98/01 on ICRC activities in Georgia
04-06-1998 Operational Update No 98/01
Renewed fighting in Gali
Some 40,000 people are reported to have crossed over to western Georgia to escape fighting which broke out on 20 May between Abkhaz forces and Georgian irregulars southwest of Gali, in the UN security zone bordering the cease-fire line. These are the most serious clashes since the cease-fire was signed in May 1994 and are being seen as a manifestation of the rising frustration over the deadlocked peace process. For the last four years Georgia and Abkhazia have been trying to settle their differences at the negotiating table, but the situation has remained frozen despite all the efforts undertaken by various international players to find a solution to the conflict. The main problems to be solved relate to the status of Abkhazia and to the future of some 200,000 people displaced from Abkhazia to western Georgia, following the fighting in 1993.
A never-ending nightmare for vulnerable groups
In Abkhazia the economic embargo has led to a sharp deterioration in living conditions, the disruption of the social system and a widespread need for assistance. In addition, the general economic collapse has resulted in uncontrolled crime and violence. Non-Abkhaz minorities, such as elderly Georgian and Russian pensioners without any relatives nearby, are particularly easy targets.
The violent clashes that took place in the Gali region caused further destruction and the presence of anti-personnel mines and other exploding devices in the area poses another constant and widespread threat to the lives and limbs of the people left there, mostly elderly and sick people who were unable to escape to safer ground.
In western Georgia, living conditions for the displaced population, which has been stranded there for over four years now, will no doubt become even more precarious with the arrival of tens of thousands of newly displaced people in the wake of the latest bout of fighting. Several recent cases of abduction and attacks in the Zugdidi region have also been generating fear and insecurity among the local population there.
Before the latest fighting erupted, the ICRC was following up 33 detainees in Abkhazia. Through presentations with the highest Abkhaz authorities, the delegates are currently seeking access to persons detained in relation to the latest violence in Gali.
In Georgia, ICRC delegates have access to all places of detention in the country. They are regularly following up the situation of some 300 detainees in 20 prisons. These include people held for conflict-related or security reasons, as well as common-law offenders who are vulnerable because of their age, sex, etc.
In Abkhazia, the civilian population as a whole is affected by the general rise in violent crime but members of minority groups - mostly Georgians, Russians and Armenians living alone - are particularly vulnerable. ICRC delegates have been increasingly present in order to monitor the s ituation and encourage the authorities to ensure the protection of those at risk. Following the latest events, the ICRC now needs to obtain security guarantees in order to conduct its tasks in the worst-affected areas.
The ICRC is also keeping an eye on the situation in the remote Kodori valley (Abkhazia) close to the front-line and where frequent clashes between irregular armed groups continue to claim victims.
Restoration of family links
Since the latest outburst of violence in Gali, the ICRC office in Zugdidi has been approached by many displaced families seeking information about their relatives (mainly old and handicapped people) left behind in the villages. As reliable communication links out of Abkhazia have still not been restored since the fighting four years ago the Red Cross message network continues to provide an essential link between separated families. It will hopefully allow relatives cut off from one another since the latest outburst of violence to reestablish contact rapidly.
Between January and March 1998, nearly 15,000 Red Cross messages were handled in connection with the Abkhazian conflict. Since 20 May, the number of messages processed per week has risen from about 750 to 950.
The ICRC provides training and material support to the Georgian Red Cross to enable it to become more involved in the service.
ICRC medical activities
In the wake of the latest fighting an ICRC team, including a medical delegate, was sent from Sukhumi to Gali and region (Agudzera and Ochamchira) to determine humanitarian needs. On 25 May they distributed emergency medical material to three hospitals, where a total of 30 war-wounded have been registered since 20 May.
Another ICRC team, again including a medical delegate, was sent from Tbilisi to support the ICRC office in Zugdidi. There, the Respublika hospital, which has been supported by the ICRC since 1994, was provided with additional medical supplies to be able to treat a potential 50-100 war-wounded. Between 20 May and 1 June, it admitted between 50 and 60 wounded people per day. Furthermore, the ICRC increased the level of its medical assistance to the polyclinic for displaced persons in Zugdidi, where the number of consultations have risen with the arrival of new IDPs.
Many new IDPs also sought refuge along the southern axis of the Inguri river, an area lacking in health-care facilities. Mobile medical units were set up to visit villages by the Georgian Ministry of Health and were provided with ICRC medical assistance. In the same region, Darcheli hospital, as well as the Orsantia and Koki health centre, also received medicines. The ICRC will continue to work in close cooperation with the Ministry of Health in this region and will provide assistance, as needed.
Medical supplies distributed by the ICRC since the latest events took place amount to approximately two tonnes.
Ongoing health activities
Because of the embargo, Abkhazia is entirely dependent on international medical aid. The ICRC continues to provide five hospitals with surgical material and anaesthetic supplies, thus enabling operations to be performed. In recent months, before the fighting restarted, war surgery represented a fifth of all operations. Most of the wounded patients came from unstable southern Abkhazia. The ICRC also supplies essential medicines to two polyclinics and a dispensary in Sukhumi, practically the only places where people belonging to minority groups are treated. These facilities also provide home care for elderly and disable d people. This programme will continue throughout 1998 and will include staff training and on-the-spot monitoring carried out by the Hellenic Red Cross in the form of a project delegation, with the ICRC retaining overall responsibility.
Tuberculosis (TB) programme for prisoners
TB is widespread across CIS countries and the risk of contracting it in prisons is up to 60 times higher than outside.
On 31 May 98, the signature of a tri-partite cooperation agreement between the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Health and the ICRC officially launched the TB programme in Georgian prisons. This agreement contains a precise plan of action for the treatment of patients and will be carried out by the DOTS (Directly Observed Treatment - Short Course Strategy), in line with World Health Organization guidelines.
Since July 1997 the ICRC has been developing a detailed study of the prevalence of TB and of resistance to certain drugs in the frame of the national TB programme in Georgian penitentiaries. Results show that more than 300 detainees are confirmed as suffering from infectious pulmonary TB and that 69% of all patients examined are resistant to at least one anti-TB drug.
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 in Tbilisi and 6 in Gagra are fitted with prostheses or othoses every month.
In February 1998, a two-year diploma course for prosthetic/orthotic technicians started for the two workshops'local staff members, who have so far been trained on the job.
ICRC relief activities
ICRC response to urgent needs
In response to the latest violence in southern Abkhazia and the resulting displacement of some 40,000 people, the ICRC has stepped up its relief assistance in western Georgia, in close coordination with both the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the Georgian Red Cross. During the emergency phase, the ICRC distributed 7,000 family food parcels and blankets to 30,000 persons in 57 villages in the Zugdidi and Tsalendjikha area. The distributions were based on lists established by the authorities in order to target the new IDPs. Kitchen utensils, stoves and clothes will be handed out shortly, according to needs.
Focus on Abkhazia
While the ICRC's approach to the southern Caucasus has been moving away from large-scale emergency food distributions towards 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 50,000 people in need. In urban areas, they include elderly and disabled people, orphans and families with many children. The assistance includes staple food such as flour, sugar and cooking oil. In rural areas, beneficiaries are also provided with potato and vegetable seedlings, helping them to attain self-sufficiency.
Other programmes: community kitchens, agronomy projects and home assistance
Across Abkhazia, 21 ICRC-run kitchens provide one cooked meal a day to the most vulnerable elderly and disabled people (at present nearly 7,000 beneficiaries). 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 is providing technical support for this programme throughout 1998.
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). The Swedish Red Cross is carrying out this programme throughout 1998 as a project delegation benefiting around 1,000 people.
Promoting international humanitarian law and principles
To obtain compliance with humanitarian rules for the conduct of military operations, the ICRC regularly organizes presentations and seminars on the law of armed conflict 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.
Through 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 took part in the humanitarian law course and competition organized by the Moscow delegation in May 1998.
A needs assessment and feasibility study was carried out earlier this year with a view to launching a mine awareness campaign in Georgia and Abkhazia.