NEWS

The government’s orderly and thorough evacuation

To rescue the Greeks who were trapped between the warring parties in Sukhumi and the surrounding villages, an operation called «Golden Fleece» was initiated by the Greek State in July 1993. The operation was completed successfully by August 18 of that year; it was the most important Greek initiative during this period, and one of the most noteworthy Greek enterprises undertaken beyond our borders. Immediately after the outbreak of hostilities in 1992, the Greek government had examined different scenarios to help the Greeks who were trapped in the area. However, the chaotic situation in Georgia and the extremely difficult and fluid situation in Russia impeded the organization of any operations prior to the ceasing of hostilities, because it was feared that these operations could result in worse bloodshed and loss of lives. Thus not much was achieved during the first months of 1993, as it proved impossible to secure even an informal guarantee that the warring parties, or some of their factions, would respect such a humanitarian mission. However, as the situation evolved in 1993, the persistent political will of the Greek government to carry out an extensive rescue operation, the improvement of the network of contacts of the Greek Embassy in Moscow (at the time responsible also for Georgia), and the possibility of an approaching ceasefire all made the prospect of a rescue operation feasible. The responsibility for the on-the-spot organization of this special operation was given, according to a decision by then-Deputy Foreign Minister Virginia Tsouderou and then-President of the National Foundation for the Reception of Pontian Greeks (EIYAPOE) Giorgos Iakovou, to the head of the Consular Office of the Greek Embassy in Moscow, Defense Attaché Colonel Giorgos Kousoulis, staffer Prodromos Teknopoulos, and the representative of the EIYAPOE in Tbilisi, Adamis Mitsotakis. Close cooperation between the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Defense was established in order to assure the smooth and effective implementation of the operation. Initially, the above-mentioned officers of the Greek Embassy in Moscow were sent to Georgia to prepare the extensive rescue operation. They had to locate and organize the trapped Greeks, issue their travel documents and, most importantly, negotiate with the local Georgian authorities in order to secure the safe transport of the diaspora Greeks to Greece. From July 21 to July 30 the team made contacts with representatives of the Georgian government, the local Russian Embassy and the Georgian Patriarchate, and with a representative of the Abkhazian secession administration. In order to protect the lives of the civilians, their main aim was to get all the interlocutors to guarantee that they would help the evacuation of the Greek population and the warring sides would maintain a truce until its completion. On July 31, as soon as this truce was agreed upon, the Greek team, facing great difficulties because all normal forms of transportation had been halted, boarded a small plane carrying soldiers and went to Sukhumi to organize the evacuation of the Greeks. By that time Sukhumi had been left without water, electricity or food, with most of its infrastructure destroyed and with several uncontrolled criminal groups at large in the area. The Greek team stayed in an abandoned Russian sanatorium that was guarded by Russian soldiers and was considered safe. As they could not find food or water to buy, the local military police offered them «hospitality» in their canteen, where they were disposing only potatoes, tomatoes and tea, while the Greeks often shared their meager provisions and rationed dry bread and fruit with them. For 10 days the team, under conditions of extreme and imminent danger, accompanied by heavily armed members of the local militia, visited all the neighborhoods of the city and the surrounding villages that had significant Greek populations (Georkievka, Pavlovka, Odissi, Mitsurina, Alexandrovka, Temerciki, Halachidon) in order to inform the Greeks about the operation and organize a network of help. The team set up a temporary «consulate» in the house of Philippos Tyrikidis, one of the Greeks in Sukhumi, and arranged the travel documents of 1,484 people. Subsequently, the organizers of the operation returned to Tbilisi, where on August 11 a team of 11 commandoes of the Greek Ministry of Defense arrived to help with the execution of the mission. On August 12, the now-enlarged group returned to Sukhumi on board a small plane with the necessary food supplies, water and communications facilities, and arranged the final details of the operation, which culminated at dawn on August 15. That day, early in the morning, according to the plan, a big Greek ship arrived in the port of Sukhumi. By nightfall, 1,015 Greeks who had decided to abandon Georgia boarded the ship that left for Greece. On August 18 the ship arrived in Alexandroupolis. Operation Golden Fleece was organized exceptionally well and succeeded in saving the Greeks. Its good timing and importance were further emphasized by the fact that in September 1993, Sukhumi was overrun by the Abkhazian forces and hundreds of people died. This operation also contributed significantly to raising the stature of Greece, not only in the eyes of the diaspora, but also on the international stage. As previously stated, it was the first postwar political-humanitarian operation beyond Greece’s borders. This important and successful operation found its place in history, as well as in international dialogue, academic discussions and bibliography. A prominent historian, Catherine Dale, wrote «The Dynamics and Challenges of Ethnic Cleansing: The Georgia-Abkhazia Case» (WRITENET Country Papers, August 1997). Caught in the middle of the madness were members of other official nationalities. In the earliest days of the war, Greece arranged an orderly and thorough evacuation for Abkhazia’s Greek population of about 15,000 people. One of the most prominent observers of the Caucasian crises at the time, Edgar O’Ballance, mentions the operation in «Wars in the Caucasus, 1990-1995» (New York University Press, 1997): «Some international arrangements were in operation to evacuate refugees from the beleaguered seaport. For example, after secret preparations Greece activated ‘Operation Golden Fleece’, whereby 1,200 Greeks were evacuated by ships.» Operation Golden Fleece, which helped the evacuation of ethnic Greeks from the war-plagued area of Caucasus, had another, symbolic meaning: Greece’s determination to assist diaspora Greeks throughout the world.