GOMA, ZAIRE — DURING the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the infamous Radio des Mille Collines (Radio of the Thousand Hills) was used by Hutu extremists to broadcast encouragement to the death squads killing Tutsis.
Now radio broadcasts are being used for a peaceful purpose: Since the middle of last year, the Hirondelle Foundation, a Swiss charity, has been supporting "Radio Agatashya," a station based on the concept that it is essential for Hutu refugees in Zairean camps to receive accurate information about their camps and life in their home country.
Among the more than a million Rwandan Hutu refugees in the camps are extremists who participated in a four-month genocide that killed more than 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. When the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front advanced, Hutus fled to Zaire.
The refugees, who have been in the camps in Goma and Bukavu in eastern Zaire for almost two years, spend their days collecting wood for cooking fires and water for washing their clothes. But most important, they reserve a part of the day to listen to their radio. The station broadcasts every weekday - morning and afternoon - sending out signals from Goma and Bukavu. The jaunty signature tune preceding the hourly Agatashya news bulletins crackles out of battered radios, cherished possessions of refugees who struggle to maintain their links with the outside world.
Ernest Nduguyemo, a preacher who lives in Mugunga camp on the edge of Goma town, is an avid listener who has grown to trust the Radio Agatashya broadcasts. "Every evening I go to my neighbor's shelter. We all listen because we know that Radio Agatashya tells the truth."
The director of Radio Agatashya, Swiss journalist Philippe Dahinden, manages a budget of more than $1 million a year and coordinates the activities of 70 staff members based in eastern Zaire, Rwanda, and Burundi.
One year after the first broadcasts to the refugees, he is convinced that the station is serving a useful purpose. "We're not a voice for the refugees," Mr. Dahinden says. "We aim just to give them information, and I believe that information is as important as food, water, or other assistance. They need to know what's happening in Rwanda and what's going on in the camps."
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provides 25 percent of the cost for Radio Agatashya broadcasts and contributes radio programs on health matters and food-distribution plans in the camps. It also funds similar radio programs in Cambodia, Albania, and Vietnam.
UNHCR officials say that the neutral information broadcast on Radio Agatashya plays an important role in breaking the grip of extremist refugee leaders. The influence of the leaders is still strong, and the UNHCR holds them responsible for dissuading many people from returning to Rwanda by overexaggerating the threat of arrest or imprisonment in their home country.
Despite the positive reaction to the radio broadcasts, many refugees remain suspicious. "I'm a great fan of Radio Agatashya," says Wenceslas Nahimana, a former schoolteacher who now makes a living teaching children in Kibumba camp. "I listen every day, but so far nothing on the radio can convince me that I should go back to Rwanda. We all hear from many people that the killings are continuing. There are arbitrary arrests, executions, disappearances, and the conditions in the prisons are inhuman."
UNHCR officials say it will take time before the refugees feel free enough to make up their own minds about what they hear on Radio Agatashya and decide that they can return to their home country.
Now that the United Nations pulled out its peacekeeping troops last Friday, the information Radio Agatashya gives may be even more needed.