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Aid Officials Urge Refugees To Return to Rwanda

US begins airlift of food and resources to crowded camps in eastern Zaire

By Robert M. PressStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 25, 1994



NAIROBI, KENYA

AS a massive United States airlift of food, medicine, and equipment gets under way to aid the 1 million suffering Rwandan refugees in Goma, Zaire, senior United Nations and private-relief officials say the key now is to try to persuade the healthy refugees to return home.

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The most important thing is to create a ``psychological climate'' of safety in Rwanda so people will return, says Peter Hansen, UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs.

Mr. Hansen, who arrived here Saturday night, is leading a top-level UN team to Goma and to Kigali, Rwanda's capital, this week. Finding ways to encourage refugees to go home ``is what this mission is about,'' he says.

With borders between Zaire and Rwanda reopened yesterday, a growing number of refugees began heading home.

Luring refugees back will require a nonpartisan radio station, probably run by the UN, to counter reports by a clandestine radio -

apparently run by the ousted Hutu government inside Rwanda - that are perpetuating ethnic fears. The new radio station is needed to assure people of their safety in returning, Hansen and other relief officials say. Also needed is distribution of much greater quantities of relief food inside Rwanda and the presence of more UN troops and aid-agency personnel, UN and other relief officials say.

None of this is happening - yet. But Hansen says talks are under way with the British government to furnish a radio station. He blamed the international community with being ``pathetically slow in putting [UN] troops together'' to augment the force of some 2,500 now in Rwanda. The UN estimates the first major increases in troops may not come until late August.

The US commitment

President Clinton authorized $100 million for the US airlift on Friday. ``We've been working since May [supplying relief to Rwandan refugees and the displaced], and I have done all I knew to do,'' he said.

UN and private-relief officials welcomed the airlift, which began Saturday and could ultimately involve roughly 2,000 military personnel organizing 24-hour relief flights to Goma and Bukavu, also in Zaire. The operation could last months, during which the US will expand the narrow Goma airfield, unload equipment, and provide security at the airports used in Zaire.

Australia and Israel have offered to establish and run field hospitals, and other countries have pledged food and funds.

But no nation or agency has yet taken on the task of constructing or maintaining the huge quantities of latrines desperately needed to curb the outbreak of cholera in Goma, according to UN officials.

Charles Murigande, representative to the US for the victorious rebel Rwandan Patriot Front (RPF), chides Western nations for being slow to pay for airlifting African UN troops to Rwanda who are standing by with their equipment. He contends the massive US airlift shows there are plenty of planes available to bring them. Many refugees, he says, were forced by fleeing officials of the defeated government to leave. ``If conditions were such that they could exercise their free will, many would opt to go back,'' he says.

Senior Hutu officials of the new Tutsi-dominated government will soon go to Goma and speak to refugees to encourage them to return, Dr. Murigande says, despite the security risk from the presence of many defeated Rwandan soldiers there.

One way the US can help encourage a return of refugees is to recognize the new RPF government in Rwanda, says Roger Winter, head of the US Committee for Refugees, a private agency in Washington. ``The Americans are stalling around about this. It's ridiculous.''

With most food aid now heading toward Zaire, relief officials are worried even more people will flee Rwanda.

``As much as everyone is worried about Goma, there are still plenty of people back inside [Rwanda],'' says Geoff Loane of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). More than half a million potential refugees are still in southwestern Rwanda and need more food urgently to convince them to stay, Mr. Loane says.

Western nations must be generous and quick in providing food, seeds, and other materials to encourage refugees to return, says Arturo Hein, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Rwanda.

In addition to the 1 million who fled to Goma in the last two weeks, more than half a million Rwandans have fled southwestern Rwanda in the past few days to Bukavu, and points south, according to Trevor Page of the World Food Programme (WFP), speaking Friday by satellite phone from Bukavu.

Problems in Bukavu

The cold in Bukavu threatens the weakest and youngest among the estimated 300,000 refugees there, he said, adding that the priority need, along with food, is blankets. Food distribution in Bukavu began Friday but the quantities are ``nothing like what we need,'' Mr. Page says. Bukavu has only a small, unpaved airstrip to receive relief planes, though roads connect it to neighboring Burundi.

The Uvira plain, an area south of Bukavu where some 100,000 refugees are now gathered, is lower in altitude and thus warmer, and is easily reached by road from Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi.

In Goma, the death toll from cholera has reached into the thousands. The disease is linked to poor sanitation and lack of clean water. Cholera could kill thousands more, but is not likely to continue indefinitely, relief officials say. ``It peaks fairly sharply, dramatically, then it comes down, says the ICRC's Loane. ``It only affects a reasonably small percentage of the population.'' But even a small percentage of 1 million is a lot of people.

Relief officials, trying to manage the huge numbers of refugees with only a few hundred personnel are woefully understaffed. Zaireans and Rwandans who are still healthy could be tapped to help, but organizing them is a massive task.