On the night of August 7, the Georgian artillery caused terrible suffering to Ossetians in the tiny province of South Ossetia. Amongst the many deaths were those of Russian peacekeepers who had been placed there after the conflict there between Ossetians and Georgians in the beginning of the 1990's with over a thousand deaths. My wife, Roswitha, and I with community leaders from Northern Ireland met some of the Ossetians who had fled from there during our first visit to the North Caucasus in 1991. They showed us photos of atrocities.
In 1990, John Lampen, a Quaker peace worker in Northern Ireland, and I arranged for community leaders from the North Caucasus including an Ossetian to spend a morning at the headquarters of the British army in Derry (Londonderry). The British commander there described how he and his soldiers exercised their role of peacekeeping with sensitivity to peoples caught up in the Irish troubles using minimum force. Later John Lampen and I went with this army commander to the headquarters of the Russian internal army near Moscow. Over lunch we met the Russian generals in charge of peacekeeping in South Ossetia. They described how they and their soldiers exercised this role with what seemed to us to be a similar degree of sensitivity to that of British soldiers in Derry. I believe that they served substantially to prevent violence in South Ossetia until August 7 this year.
The response of the Russian forces has been in many respects disproportionate but in some respects appropriate to restoring security in South Ossetia.
This poses a perennial dilemma for Quakers: do we criticise this use of force? We are unarmed peacebuilders rather than armed peacekeepers. Our role is often to seek to heal the hurt of violence by finding ways of restoring peaceful relations through bringing together people who have been alienated by that violence. Will Warren, the intrepid peacebuilder in Derry, not only did this wonderfully well. He also took messages between the opposing paramilitaries that through preventing violence saved many lives. Such peacebuilding was made possible through the diligent and often unobserved and uneventful service of armed peacekeepers. Otherwise violence could recur putting peacebuilding on hold for a long time.
John and I were invited with another senior British officer to help train armed peacekeepers in the disputed territory between Ingush and Ossetians in North Ossetia. Afterwards the British officer said how much he appreciated working with Quakers as ‘we were in the same business of keeping the peace’. I said we were in some sense in the same business but our methods were different! In the exercise of peacebuilding I have often needed the presence of armed peacekeepers especially in the immediate aftermath of war.
I have been with peacebuilding groups both sides of the Caucasian mountains. Despite their limited powers and their frailties, they are sorely needed in Georgia if harmonious ethnic relations are to be restored at least to a degree of mutual accommodation.
Eduard Shevardnadze, then Head of State in Georgia, greeted us with bleary eyes at a breakfast meeting in Tbilisi in August 1992. As the former Soviet Foreign Minister, he contributed much with Gorbachev to reduce tensions between the USSR and the West through dialogue and arms reduction.
We were a small group from the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly, HCA, whose purposes include the promotion of peacebuilding especially between ethnic groups that have been alienated by violence as was the case between South Ossetians and Georgians then. Our group had spent the previous day in South Ossetia. Unfortunately I could not be with them then as my plane from Moscow arrived 36 hours late.
'I've just done one of the worst things that I have ever done', admitted Shevardnadze. 'I have ordered my defence minister whom I do not trust to take an armed force into a region close to Abkhazia to retrieve my Vice President who has been kidnapped there. Relations of Georgians with the Abkhaz as with the Ossetians are tinderbox dry. We should avoid using force that could set the whole country on fire'. This armed force went on contrary to his instructions into Abkhazia and started a war there in which Shevardnadze nearly lost his life.
Shevardnadze has recently given an interview in which he repeatedly condemned the Georgian artillery assault on South Ossetia this August. He said that this was a serious error of judgement by President Saakashvili of Georgia whom he had been upholding as having been democratically elected. This military assault has led to untold misery not only for Georgians but for Ossetians too for much of their capital Tskhinvali is in ruins and there is much trauma arising from the long artillery barrage, and the subsequent intervention by Russian and paramilitary Ossetian forces that has left many Georgians there dead or displaced.
The Georgian President has not resigned despite such an error of judgement as the Russians deployed a disproportionate use of force. This allowed the West to rescue him from ignominy.
After quite a long discussion with Shevardnadze we drove to Baku, capital of neighbouring Azerbaijan, and then with the Chair of the HCA there, Arzu Abdullaeva, we were able to cross the border into Armenia once shelling had been suspended for a few hours. Armenia and Azerbaijan were at war then over the disputed Nagorno Karabakh region. The HCA were endeavouring then as now to bring citizens together from both countries and Nagorno Karabakh to uphold human rights and build some kind of peace between the conflicting parties. Arzu was the first Azeri to cross the border into ‘enemy’ territory. This was a courageous initiative: she sat next to me tense with anxiety as we drove across the border. She and the Armenian HCA Chair, Anahit Bayandour, were awarded the Olof Palme peace prize for their Peacebuilding work.
Peacebuilding between Georgians, Ossetians and Abhaz is temporarily on hold due to the violence, but before long similar exercises to bring citizens of these ethnic groups into face to face encounters to provide mutual security and trust will be vitally needed.
Peter Jarman was a member of TFF’s peacebuilding work in the Balkans. Roswitha and Peter Jarman served as Quaker representatives in Moscow 1991-4. They continue to be involved with peacebuilding in the North Caucasus. Peter now serves as Chair of Peacebuilding UK.