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Hunger, Desertion Plague Georgian Army

Georgia's national security at stake as conscript soldiers face chronic hunger
By Maia Chitaia

Every week, Tbilisi mother Manana Khachishvili takes a trip to the Gori region where her teenage son has been stationed in a military unit for several months. She brings with her a basket of food large enough to last him a week. "It's hard work, but I manage to keep him fed. Otherwise he would starve," said Manana.


She is one of many mothers who have to supplement their sons' army rations, while many more families simply cannot afford to do it.


"I found myself thinking about food 24 hours a day," recalled Vakhtang Mosiashvili, who was discharged from military service five years ago. "Sometimes we managed to steal some butter or cheese from the company storeroom. This helped stave off hunger for a while, but thoughts about food kept on tormenting us."


Hunger is one of the main reasons for the high level of desertion within the armed forces. According to the annual report of Georgia's human rights ombudsman, the military prosecutor's office investigated 1872 instances of desertion in 2000, and 2498 in 2001.


The defence ministry will not officially provide any more up-to-date figures than that, but a source at the general staff of the Georgian military told IWPR that 1102 soldiers had left their units without official leave by the end of the first quarter of 2002.


Other young men manage to avoid military service altogether. Georgian law gives prospective conscripts the option of buying an official 12-month deferral for 200 lari (about 100 US dollars). Some get out of conscription without paying anything. Last year, the military recruited somewhere between one third and a half of the conscripts it needed.


To be called up means to suffer a terrible ordeal. "We have recently monitored military units in the regions of Kakheti and Kartli," Nodar Efremidze, assistant human rights ombudsman for military matters, told IWPR. "Soldiers are facing enormous hardships both socially and psychologically."


The problems the soldiers face include poor nourishment, shortage of uniforms and medical supplies, low wages and unsafe accommodation. "Some units do not even have bed sheets," said Efremidze. "The footwear they issue to soldiers is so inferior it only lasts about a month."


This leads to a situation where military units can no longer afford to be fully manned, even in places like the Pankisi Gorge in northwest Georgia, which are a national and international security priority. "In the Pankisi Gorge, for instance, the units are manned to only thirty or forty per cent of the required strength, this despite the fact the anti-criminal operation going on there," said Efremidze.


Georgian defence officials concede that the situation has been bad but insist that it is improving.


"It is important to note that in recent years, the supply of food and uniforms in the army has noticeably improved," wrote Lt Gen Joni Pirtskhalaishvili, chief of the general staff, in a letter to human rights commissioner Nana Devdariani in August last year. "We could say that the main motives for desertion have been eliminated."


Dodo Turkoshvili, head of the sanitation and epidemic control service of the defence ministry, also stresses that food quality has improved in the army.


"We are now more concerned with soldiers' health and what they eat," she told IWPR. "The food has really improved and diversified in the last two years. We haven't had a single case of mass food poisoning. Soldiers never complain about anything."


However, the real picture may not be so rosy. According to Georgia's general nutrition standards, a soldier needs 4524 Kcal a day to stay fit for service, which is well below international standards. A Turkish soldier, by comparison, consumes 6000 Kcal a day.


Moreover, to fulfil its quotas, the defence ministry mainly feeds soldiers high-calorie foods like pasta and bread. As a result, soldiers never get their daily share of protein, fat and carbohydrates, which are just as important for their health. Military hospitals are full of soldiers, fed on this diet, who suffer from gastrointestinal conditions.


"Baked products contain a lot of calories but not nearly enough carbohydrates," explained David Metreveli, a dietician and the country's chief endocrinologist. "When the body receives too many calories it gains weight, but still lacks vitamins. The body grows and weakens at the same time."


The soldiers themselves refuse to talk to journalists or identify themselves, fearing reprisals. They will only reveal the gruesome details of their service once they desert the unit and have nothing to lose.


The non-governmental organisation Rights and Freedom cites the case of a soldier, referred to by his initials LTs, who deserted his unit.


"Because of a poor diet in his unit he developed a duodenal ulcer," said Rights and Freedom's director, Irakly Sesiashvili. "Private LTs went to the doctor several times complaining of stomach pains. He asked to be sent to hospital but was refused."


An army manned by ailing soldiers cannot fight effectively, Sesiashvili points out, and the military leadership actually recognises this. "So they never train them," he said. "As a consequence, the army is not battle-trained. A hungry, untrained army cannot defend its country."


Rights and Freedom, the first NGO to monitor the Georgian armed forces, concluded following research in 2000 and 20001 that an average soldier's diet consists of the following:


He eats kasha (hot oatmeal) for breakfast, generally without any added fat (according to Rights and Freedom, the defence ministry hardly stocked any butter for the army in 2000). The kasha may be substituted with boiled cabbage and what is left over is topped up with water and served as soup at lunchtime. They rarely serve meat and when they do, it is often rotten. If fish is served it is only the heads. Supper is basically the same as breakfast.


Even more disturbingly there are suspicions that the soldiers were promised more but only ended up receiving about one sixth of their rations.


"Soldiers told me their food supply trucks would stop at the market to sell the most valuable food first before they arrived in the unit with the rest," Sesiashvili told IWPR. "So the soldiers just ended up with the poor quality leftovers." Officers, whose wages were routinely delayed for months, would frequently raid supply trucks, each taking one to two kilos of food home to their families, the soldiers said.


Efremidze, who frequently meets soldiers, said that they still complain of the same problems with poor quality food. In one unit recently, there was an instance of mass poisoning from rotten fish.


Responsibility for Georgian's hungry soldiers is hard to apportion. Within government, sources at the defence ministry admit the problem does exist, but put the blame squarely on the finance ministry, for allegedly failing to provide funding for army foodstocks.


A comparison of the budgets of the two ministries shows that the finance ministry does underfund the defence ministry by about 100,000-200,000 lari every month. However, this does not mean that much as the finance ministry does tends to make up for its shortfalls later and the defence ministry usually buys food on consignment - that is pay its suppliers after a certain time period.


Moreover, the latter draws up its monthly food budgets based on its target number of soldiers. However, last year, when as little as one third of planned recruits were actually conscripted, the ministry should have been left with an enormous surplus, more than enough to feed soldiers well. Yet the food was no better than before.


Vakhtang Mosiashvili has spent five years trying in vain to cure the stomach ulcer he developed from poor nutrition in the army. "It was the most terrible period of my life," he recalled. "We only had one solution, to steal the food. I still don't understand if we were really stealing, as it turns out we were taking the food the defence ministry was supposed to stock for us."


Maia Chitaia and Nino Zhvania are freelance journalists based in Tbilisi


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