Portrait of a small Caucasus war

UPPER ESHERA, Georgia (UPI) — Sound carries well in the coastal foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, which at sunrise these days means rifle fire and bursting shells mixed in with crowing roosters and coughing tractor engines.

Georgian and Abkhazian forces have been exchanging gunfire for the last three months in a dispute over who will control Abkhazia — a conflict as confused as the patchwork of ethnic groups scattered through the Caucasus.

The sounds travel from the Gumista River northwest along the shore of the Black Sea to the temporary rebel capital of Gudauta and up into the hills where farmers raise tangerines, tea, tobacco, cows, goats, and pigs.

Up near the Abkhazian front-line headquarters in Upper Eshera, the sound of an explosion is occasionally joined at just the right moment by the passing of a warm subtropical breeze, giving the illusion that the listener can feel the heat generated by the blast.

There aren’t as many people around to listen as in the days when the roosters were the only things to disturb the quiet breeze. Vacationers have long gone. Children have almost all been sent to stay with friends and relatives in safer areas. Others fled bombed-out homes, cratered roads, military checkpoints and sleepless nights.

Local Abkhazian nationalists say, however, that a surprising number of people remained in their homes: to bring in crops, to guard their property, or simply because they have nowhere else to go.

And then there are the fighters themselves. They sit around rough wooden tables, cleaning automatic rifles and clipping the points off bullets so that they shriek as they fly toward the Georgians across the river.

They sleep packed close together in makeshift beds, in clothes they have been wearing for months. They sleep in trenches, in a children’s camp, in a monastery, on restaurant benches, in hotels, in their armored transport vehicles, in their cars. They sleep holding their guns.

And they stand outside Restaurant Eshera, smoking cigarettes and waiting for breakfast at what was once a resort-town dining room and is now military headquarters.

The fighters are a strange collection of young and old, of Abkhazians and Armenians and Russians and Chechens and others from the North Caucasus. They wear mismatched camouflage and construction-green uniforms and civilian clothes.

The lucky ones hold hunting guns and automatic rifles. Many have nothing but knives and wait either to strip a weapon from their first kill or for the Abkhazian side to buy enough so they can be issued a gun.

Some have used their savings to purchase guns, available legally in many places in the tinderbox North Caucasus. Others have stolen them from their fellow soldiers. If one has a rifle, one must keep a close eye on it in Eshera.

Many of those who now serve as volunteers in the ragtag Abkhazian armed forces fled Sukhumi when Georgian troops moved into the regional capital to oust Abkhazian separatists from the former autonomous republic inside Georgia.

Now the Abkhazians want to take Sukhumi back. Backing them are friends and relatives, or ethnic cousins who came from other mostly Muslim ethnic groups in the North Caucasus to fight the Orthodox Christian Georgians.

It is a small war.

There are about 1,500 volunteers fighting on the Abkhazian side, according to military sources, with about a tenth from outside Georgia in the North Caucasus republics that are part of Russia and have their own ethnic conflicts.

The entire population of the former Abkhazian autonomous republic is about half a million. Less than 20 percent of the residents are Abkhazian. A little under half are Georgian and the rest are Russian, Armenian, Greek and other nationalities.

Abkhazian separatists and their supporters control one-third of the region after driving Georgians out of the area northwest of the Gumista River. They are fighting for the entire territory on the other side of the river.

The Abkhazians say they are fighting to defend their right of self- determination. The Georgians say they are fighting to defend Georgia’s territorial integrity.

“The Abkhazians think that they are fighting for their homeland,” says Vakhtang Kolbaya, a member of the Georgian faction of the splintered Abkhazian Supreme Soviet. “The Georgians are also fighting for their homeland.” Abkhazian separatists say they are the native inhabitants of the region, which has for centuries been under the control of Turks, Russians and Georgians.

When the war began Aug. 14, the Abkhazian Supreme Soviet had voted to return to a constitution of 1925, when Abkhazia was an autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. Abkhazian leader Vladislav Ardzinba says he favors a treaty-based, federative agreement with Georgia, but nobody is sure exactly what that means.

“We would prefer to solve the problem by peaceful means,” says Ardzinba, pointing to the war’s cost of hundreds of lives and millions of dollars of damage that has brought the region to the brink of famine.

He said the Georgian government was responsible for the war, because it moved troops in to stop the Abkhazian nationalists.

“They solve political problems by force,” he said. “They have always used force.” The Georgian opposition in the Abkhazian Supreme Soviet, however, accuses the Abkhazians of provoking the conflict by repressive measures against Georgians and by opening fire on a Georgian military unit that was being moved back to Sukhumi from another ethnic conflict in South Ossetia.

“They intentionally went toward the inflammation of a national conflict,” says Kolbaya, a Georgian legislator.

Georgians also deny the Abkhazian primacy in the area. Kolbaya says the fact that Georgian and Abkhazian are in different language families is evidence that the Abkhazians came into Georgian territory from the North Caucasus and are not really native to the region, which, he said, has always been occupied and controlled by Georgians.

“Even when Abkhazia was considered independent,” he said, “it still looked to the central government in Georgia for leadership.” The Georgian troop movement into Sukhumi and the southeastern part of Abkhazia has polarized the population and split the Supreme Soviet almost down the middle, with non-Georgian ethnic groups mostly on the side of the Abkhazians. A little more than half of the Parliament is in Gudauta, the temporary separatist capital. The rest of the members, the Georgian faction, are still in Sukhumi.

The war has also caused concern among Abkhazians forced to move to Turkey under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and the descendants of 19th century expatriates who fled at the end of the Caucasus war against Russia.

At a recent cultural congress, Abkhazian representatives from Turkey, Syria, Western Europe and the United States gathered to show support and offer humanitarian and financial aid.

They were joined by representatives from the North Caucasus republics, who expressed solidarity with the Abkhazian people and promised what aid they could offer.

The militant Caucasus People’s Confederation in October condemned “Georgian aggression” against Abkhazia and promised military support.

“It would have been much harder to defend Abkhazia without the Confederation,” says Ardzinba of the volunteer fighters, weapons and other aid. “What is also important is that they help morally.” In addition to aid from outside the republic, Abkhazians get part of their military equipment from Georgia itself. Armored transport vehicles, heavy artillery, and even tanks are captured, repaired in service stations that used to deal mostly in tractors and private cars, and put back into service.

Russian servicemen stationed in Eshera as a relic of Soviet rule tell of Abkhazians capturing tanks with hunting rifles, Molotov cocktails and towels.

“They would run up to a Georgian tank and cover up all the openings with towels,” said one serviceman. “When the Georgians stick their heads out, they get them.” Mushni Khvarskia, an archaeologist who now commands the forces based along the Gumista River front line, says the Abkhazian fighters will not be satisfied with a negotiated settlement in which Georgian troops remain on Abkhazian territory.

“The army will continue to fight as long as there is any armed resistance,” he said, rejecting the possibility of a compromise to save the lives of civilians. “There can be no talk of a peaceful population during a civil war.”