Experience as Chief Military Observer of United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG)
1. It is universally agreed that the creation of the United Nations Organization in 1945 was an extraordinary act of vision and statesmanship. The suffering inflicted on millions upon millions of people during two World Wars had convinced the founding fathers that only a common commitment to a system of collective security, based on freely accepted principles and rules, would preserve the World from similar carnage in the future. The Charter is, to this day, an inspiring document. It contains all the key concepts that continue to be the essential prerequisites for a peaceful and stable World: Peaceful settlement of disputes, economic and social advancement of people, and respect for human rights. Even 65 years after the creation, the security and stability remains to be the core issue for the world body. Former secretary General, Mr Kofi A Annan in one of his report mentioned, "No task is more fundamental to the United Nations than the prevention and resolution of deadly conflict." As an active member of the UN, Bangladesh, is fully committed to the cause of international peace and security and prepared to work constructively with other member states in the promotion of goals as articulated in the UN Charter. Such commitment is also outlined in the Constitution of Bangladesh, which states, "The state shall base its international relations on the principles of respect for national sovereignty and equality, non-Interference in the internal affairs of other countries, peaceful settlement of international disputes and respect for international law and the principles enunciated in the United Nations Charter". Bangladesh became member of the UN in 1974 and since then played an important role in establishment of peace across the Globe. Bangladesh started its peace support missions in 1988 with a modest contribution of 15 Army officers as Military Observers to United National Peace Keeping Operations in Iran-Iraq (UNIMOG). Since then Bangladesh has participated in 45 Peace Support Operations all over the world in difficult and unknown terrain and extreme weather condition. For about a decade Bangladesh is one of the top troop contributing Country in UN Peace Support Missions. United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) is one such mission where I had the unique opportunity to command the Military component of the Mission from April 1997 to November 1998 as the Chief Military Observer. This was of course a unique opportunity for me to appreciate military operations from different perspective.
2. United Nations Observation Mission in Georgia was established through the Security Council Resolution 858 of 24 August 1993 with the aim of resolving the disputes between the Republic of Georgia and the breakaway fraction of Abkhazia. Before I elaborate on my experience, I think it would be pertinent to present some basic facts regarding the conflict.
3. Geography and Climate: Geo-political location of Georgia is on the east and north coast of Black Sea bounded by Armenia and Turkey on the south, Russia on the east and north. A two-way metalled highway (M 27) and a railway line runs almost through the heart of the Republic connecting all the important cities and Sochi in Russian Federation. Important rivers like Koddory. Inguir, Gumista, Galitka, Okumi and Psou, etcetera and some other water channels flow from north and north-western part of Georgia to the south and south west. 74% of its territory is covered by mountains and foothills. The area of Kodory Valley remains inaccessible by road for much of the winter. A stretch of lowlands and rolling terrain is found along the southern edge of Abkhazia where majority population is concentrated. The costal region of Abkhazia was an extremely popular holiday resort area, particularly for the Russians.
4. Demography: The total population of Georgia is 5.4 million. Of the total population, Georgians comprise 71.4%. More than 80 other nationalities make up the balance.
a. Abkhazizns: The Abkhaz is a distinct ethnic group with their own language and culture who have declared Abkhazia as an independent country.
b. Mingrelians: Mingrelians or Western Georgians are another distinct ethnic group with their own language. Though they form the majority in the Abkhaz-controlled Gali Region, they are entirely anti-Abkhaz. As a result most of them had to migrate to the Georgian controlled areas.
c. Svanetians: The Svanetians are hilly people who occupy mostly the Kodori Valley.
a. Christianity: Over 95% of the people practice Christianity. Almost all are Orthodox Christians.
b. Other Religions: There are other religions as well like Jewish and Muslims but their numbers are very scanty.
6. Mil Conflict: The conflict in Abkhazia began with the social unrest and attempts by the Abkhaz authorities to get independence. It escalated into a series of armed confrontations in the summer of 1992 when the Government of Georgia, deployed 2000 Georgian Troops in Abkhazia with the aim of protecting the railway and other communication links. Fierce Fighting broke out on 14 Aug 1992, as the Georgian Troops entered Abkhazia, resulting in some two hundred dead and one hundred wounded. Georgian troops burned the Abkhaz parliament and bombed Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia. Subsequently, the Georgian Troops took Sukhumi and perpetrated acts of persecuted on a large scale against the non-ethnic Georgians. The Abkhaz leadership relocated themselves and started preparing for active resistance against the Georgian Troops. In a strike back, the Abkhaz gained the support of the volunteers from the Confederation of North Caucasian Mountain People and secondly, from the Russian Troops who were deployed to evacuate 12,000 Russians living in the region. On 27 July, 1993 both sides signed a ceasefire agreement under the aegis of Russia. However, subsequently the Abkhaz broke the agreement and launched an offensive. They took capital Sukhumi on 27 September and in three days they pushed the Georgian Forces across the Inguri River.
7. Background of the United Nations Mission: The fighting stopped on 30 Sep, 1993, along the line of Inguri River. This boundary also extends north into the Kodory Valley. The cessation of fighting was later confirmed by a ceasefire agreement which was signed on 14 May, 1994 and is known as Moscow Agreement. As per this agreement, ceasefire line was drawn generally along Inguri River from the coastline to the north.
8. Establishing Security Zones (SZ) and Restricted Weapon Zones (RWZ): Under the Moscow Agreement, it was agreed by all the parties that a Security Zone (SZ) and a Restricted Weapon Zone (RWZ) should be established. Georgians and Abkhaz troops should be withdrawn from the Security Zone and Kodory Valley and all heavy weapons were to be withdrawn to the heavy weapon sites (HWS) outside the Restricted Weapon Zone. It was also agreed that a Commonwealth of Independent States' Peace Keeping Force (CISPKS) would be deployed on both sides of the Inguri River to ensure that the Moscow Agreement was adhered to by both sides and that all troops and heavy weapons were withdrawn as agreed.
9. Parties involved in Mediation: A good number of countries and agencies got involved in the mediation process of the Georgia-Abkhazia conflict. Amongst them were; United Nations, the Confederation of Independent States (CIS), Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and a group of countries comprising USA, Russia, United Kingdom, France and Germany, who initially used to be called Friends of Georgia and later Friends of the Secretary General.
10. Forces Operating in the Area: The forces that have been operating in the area were:
a. Commonwealth of Independent States' Peacekeeping Force (CISPKF): A force of nearly three thousand troops of CISPKF was organized in two groups, deployed on both sides of River Inguri with the Headquarters at Sukhumi. Though by name it was CIS Forces, actually it was only Russian Forces on the ground. No other CIS country contributed to the force. Actually they were the peace-keepers and was armed with Armour, Armoured Personnel Carriers and Artillery.
b. Georgian Forces: Georgian forces included
(i) The Georgian Armed Forces comprising two brigade groups supported by the Georgian Air force.
(ii) Ministry of Interior Troops of around 350 militia in the Zugdidi area within the Security Zone.
(iii) 150 to 200 Security forces from the Ministry of Security.
(iv) Thirty Georgian Military Observers in the Security Zone, usually co-located with CISPKF Checkpoints.
c. Forces of Abkhaz Government in Exile: The Abkhaz Government in exile had 200 men in Zugdidi Area for acting as police.
d. Forces of Abkaz Separatist Group. Forces of the Abkhaz separatist group comprised of
(1) Abkhaz Army of about 3000 to 4000 men.
(2) The Abkhaz Militia numbering 250 to 300 men who used to operate as quasi-police.
(3) Abkhaz Security Services of 100 to 150 men who used to function as secret service.
(4) 13 Military Observers co-located with CISPKF.
e. Partisans: It was believed that, there were 5 to 8 partisan/terrorist groups operating in Gali. The 2,500,000 Internally Displaced Persons provided a hotbed of unrest and a fertile recruiting ground for potential partisans. According to Abkhazian claims, a group named “White Legion” organized by the Georgian Ministry of Security with 200 to 250 men and another group named “Forest Brothers” trained and equipped by Georgian Ministry of interior with 150 men were active in the area. Other groups were unidentified.
STATUS OF THE MISSION AS I TOOK OVER
11. Role of UNOMIG: As per the UN mandate, the role of the UNOMIG was to monitor and report the implementation of the Moscow Agreement and create conducive environments through dialogue for the internally Displaced Persons (IDP) to return to their homes. So far as my knowledge goes, from the beginning till the closure of the Mission, violations of the said Agreement was continuing, and very little success was achieved regarding the IDP problem.
12. Difficulties that Prevailed. Due to precarious security situation, UNOMIG had been facing lots of difficulties from the very beginning when I took over. The main difficulties were.
a. Because of the mine campaign launched by the clandestine groups against the CISPKF and Abkhaz forces, all the team bases were closed except two Sector Headquarters at Gali and Zugdidi. Absence of UN Forces in security zone, eroded UN credibility in the conflict zone.
b. The administrative Headquarters was located at PITSUNDA 80 Kilometers away from the operational area.
c. South African (MAMBA) mine-proof vehicles, which were used in some other missions successfully for a long time, have just started arriving and was not introduced till then.
d. The medical evacuation system was non-existent due to non-availability of resources.
e. Patrolling was restricted to two city areas namely Gali and Zugdidi only.
13. Challenges that Emerged out of these Difficulties: The challenges were:
a. Showing UN presence throughout the affected area instead of two cities only.
b. Establishing confidence of general public on UN efforts.
c. Streamlining the administrative support and bringing the Administrative Headquarters closer to the Operational Headquarters and bases.
d. Introduction of MAMBA vehicles for patrolling.
e. Introduction of an efficient and faster evacuation system.
14. My Concept of Operation: I planned to materialize UNOMIG's mandate through observation, dialogue, monitoring and investigation by patrolling throughout the Security Zone and Restricted Weapons Zone. The aim was that UNOMIG patrol should be able to visit each village or location in the Security Zone twice a week and in the Restricted Weapon Zone once a week and Kodory Valery at least once a month in summer. Except in very rare emergency cases, patrolling would be conducted during daylight hours only.
COMPLICATIONS IN DEALING WITH THE BELLIGERENT PARTIES.
15. Government of Georgia is an established government whereas the breakaway Abkhaz Government is not a recognized one. Conversely, being the signatories to the Moscow agreement, both the parties demand their legitimacy; and there is the main conflict.
16. Recruiting people from the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) to fight the Abkazians: A good number of ministries in the Georgian government like Ministry of Security, Ministry of interior, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Defence and parliamentary Defence Committee etc. used to deal with the issue without central co-ordination. The Georgian Government was not willing to declare formal war against the Abkhazian separatists because declaring a war might stop the flow aid from the developed countries as well as destabilize the economy. To compensate this, the Georgian government organized clandestine groups by recruiting people from the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) to fight the Abkazians; like 'White Legions', 'Forest Brothers' etc.
17. An Abkhazian government in Exile was formed by the Mingrelians migrated from Abkhazia to Georgia after the initiation of the hostilities. This government used to enjoy the total support of the Georgian Government.
18. The breakaway Abkhaz Government was also organized following Soviet pattern and a good number of ministries were involved in handling the issue having no central co-ordination.
19. It was essential to maintain contact and liaison with all the parties for the implementation of the United Nations mandate. However, it was seldom possible to get identical views from different agencies of the same government. As such decisions taken even at the highest level after prolonged negotiations were difficult to implement on the ground.
20. Relationship with the CISPKF: The main responsibility of CISPKF was to ensure implementation of the Moscow agreement. UNOMIG, through its mandate, was responsible for observing the operations and activities of CISPKF. This was a very delicate responsibility. CISPKF was responsible for providing security to UNOMIG as the UN Forces were unarmed. Any adverse reporting by UN on the CISPKF used to have impact on UN Forces' security status. Moreover adverse reporting used to create strained relationship between the UN and CISPKF forces. CISPKF forces wanted to have joint patrolling with UN. For maintaining UN neutrality, and also to avoid being targeted by the anti-Russian Forces, I deliberately avoided the Joint patrolling. However, I must admire that CISPKF have suffered substantial number of casualties while performing duties in the Area. Relationship between the forces used to be severely constrained every three months, particularly after the publication of Quarterly Security Council Reports. However, with regular visits, liaison and exchange of information, I managed to maintain a satisfactory working environment.
21. Relation with the Friends of the Secretary General (Friends of Georgia): The role of the Friends of the Secretary General was to advise the Secretary General in resolving the issue. These countries had their own agenda in solving the issue, and one of the countries, Russia, was but also a party to the conflict. Maintaining liaison and contact with these parties was essential for knowing their views and getting their assistance in implementing the UN Mandate. I had to visit regularly the representatives of countries of Friends of Secretary General to inform them about the developments.
22. Relationship with the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe. (OSCE): The OSCE had also a mandate to support the United Nations efforts in Georgia-Abkazia conflict. Members of OSCE are the major investors in Georgia. Therefore, they were keen to be involved in the affairs of resolving the issue. As the Chief Military Observer, I also had to keep close contact with their representative as well.
23. Relationship with the UN Headquarters: Department of the Peacekeeping Operations of United Nations controls the peacekeeping operations around the Globe. This department used to be staffed by the non-military persons. There was a military adviser to the Secretary General who was also the military adviser to the DPKO. But his office was so small that he could not make effective contribution to the command and control of all the Peace Support Operations around the Globe. In the mission area, the Special Representative of the Secretary General who head the mission is usually a diplomat. Since all the activities including the military activity need to be approved by him, it took longer time to reach a decision due to the procedural complications.
24. Here I must point out that, in UN system, tasking and allocation of resources is seldom done in the military way, i.e. carrying out a detail mission and task analysis and then allocating resources. But in the present case, the resources are allocated first and then the mission is tasked. As a result, often the resources become inadequate to accomplish the given task. UNOMIG was also not an exception.
b. Conflicting parties were also not at all ready to compromise on any point to resolve the conflict.
c. The UN mandates was inadequate to implement the peace agreement.
d. Resources, particularly the security assets and logistic support , were too meagre.
e. Expectation of the Local Population from UNOMIG was too high.
25. Experience as a Diplomat: None expects a military solution to this type of problems and so, the primary responsibility of resolving these conflicts is vested to the political and diplomatic means. As Chief Military Observer being a man in uniform, many a time my role got much closer to a diplomat. My diplomatic tasks mainly included contact, liaison and dialogue with:
a. The warring factions on the ground to prevent resumption of hostilities.
b. Local leaders/public representatives of the conflicting parties at field level.
c. Humanitarian Assistance Groups and NGOs.
d. Diplomats and ambassadors of Friends of Secretary General and other parties involved in the resolution of he conflict.
e. The local population of the parties in conflict.
26. A military person builds up his career and prepares himself to fight with the potential adversaries. But when he is in a Peace Support Mission, he encounters the belligerents as a mediating party. As an observer he is an unarmed person standing between two warring factions. Yet, he is the strongest force there, because he carries the mandate of the United Nations for peace.
27. The UNOMIG was an arduous and hazardous Peace Support Operation of the UN with recurrence of serious security situation for the UN Forces. Since UOMIG was established in 1993, little progress was made in resolving the issues. Till I left the mission in 1998, 167 agreements were singed by the belligerents, but none was implemented. However, one would also have to judge as to what would have happened if the UN was not there. During my tenure, though hostilities resumed three times, yet loss of lives and property were minimum due to immediate response of UNOMIG and the UNHQ. Though it was one of the most difficult period of my career after the "Bangladesh War of Liberation," yet I enjoyed the challenges and managed the affairs of the Mission to the entire satisfaction of International Community. After my return to Bangladesh, Special Representative of the Secretary General wrote to Bangladesh Permanent Mission in New York, "General Harun has consistently demonstrated objectivity, the ability to remain calm under pressure, and self control and the leadership in the most stressful situations" Today on this UN day I admire the contribution of all Military Observers of 24 Nations for their dedication and tireless efforts for establishing peace in UNOMIG.
28. Relationship with the Non-governmental Organizations .There were in total 79 NGOs and United Nations' Humanitarian Assistance in the conflict zone. The aim of all these organizations was to mitigate the sufferings of the distressed people and rehabilitate the Internally Displaced Persons. However, since each of these agencies had their own mandate, which seldom coincided with each other, a concerted effort could not be made and rehabilitation remained a far cry.
29. As regards to the Non-Governmental Organizations, my role was two-fold. Firstly, to maintain a secured environment in mission area through military activities for those agencies or organizations to work. Secondly, to make effort for making a coordinated action plan so that the help reaches the affected people always and everywhere, an objective that was seldom achieved.
30. Security Situation: Security hazards remained one of the main issues for UNOMIG operations. Everybody in the area knew that, any one putting on a blue helmet is surely an unarmed person. So, the Military Observers became the most precious but softest targets for drawing the attention of the international community as well as the United Nations. As a result, repeated incidents of abduction, robbery, ambush, etc. took place in the mission area. Even my patrol was ambushed on three occasions. On one occasion four of my fellow UN Observers were seriously injured and became crippled for life.
31. Mine and booby trap attacks by the clandestine groups against the CISPKE and the Abkhaz army were equally applicable for the Military Observers since explosives do not recognize friends and foe. At the later stage, although they started using the control devices, the treat remained alive.
32. Experience as Military Commander: It was really interesting to work with the military officers of twenty-four countries from different parts of the world. Their culture, religion, language and habits; everything was different except that all of them were military persons. As their commander I enjoyed working with them. However, as usual there had been some problem areas like:
a. Standard of training varied widely from country to country.
b. Communication amongst the Military Observers was a big problem due to the language barrier. Level of understanding of English varied widely and passing the exact information was a difficult task.
c. Though most of the Observers were good at driving the utility vehicles, very few of them had the experience of driving the heavy vehicles like MAMBA, especially in a hilly and snowy terrain.
d. At times the cultural differences among the Observers also became a point of misunderstanding.
e. Due to lengthy and cumbersome administrative chain, providing logistic support to the operational team bases and patrols was a major problem.
f. Due to absence of the agreed map as per the Moscow Agreement, establishing the ceasefire line accurately was a difficult proposition.
33. Along with political and diplomatic efforts, military components of UNOMIG had to put in untiring efforts to maintain the status quo on the ground and keep the conflicting armed factions separated from each other. For this I tried to maintain regular contact, liaison and co-ordination with the Local Military Leaders of different armed groups. Despite the wholehearted effort of UNOMIG, full-scale hostilities broke out thrice during my tenure and ceasefire agreement had to be arranged and reestablished. Among many organizations, the people with Blue Helmets were the only person who remained available to general mass on the ground throughout the conflict zone and the Military Commander was the most visible person in that context. I had to make deliberate attempt to ensure neutrality of the UN through all the activities of all members of UNOMIG. As regards the conflict itself, my personal assessment are:
a) Due to the difference of opinion, parties involved in the mediation were not serious enough to implement the UN mandate.
The writer is former CAS, Bangladesh Army.