Finding the Refugees: the Numbers Game for Rwanda

Shakespeare once wrote: "What's in a name?" Here in Rwanda people are asking: "What's in a number?"

Ever since fears of a Rwandan refugee crisis emerged three weeks ago, wildly conflicting reports have emerged about exactly how many people face bleak conditions as they roam eastern Zaire, where they fled to 2-1/2-years ago.

The United Nations says it has finally located 700,000 refugees in Zaire's South Kivu province, who remained out of aid agencies' reach after a massive outflow of refugees from North Kivu. After the 1994 genocide, 1.2 million Hutus fled to Zaire, fearing reprisals. Five hundred thousand have returned to Rwanda since Friday. The new UN evidence seems to refute Wednesday statements by Tutsi-led Rwandan government officials and some Western diplomats, who say all the refugees have come home.

The advocates of the total repatriation theory accuse the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other aid organizations of altering figures to get more financial support from donors - or simply getting the number wrong out of incompetence.

"Most of the refugees who were in Zaire have returned," Defense Minister and Vice President Paul Kagame insisted at a media conference Wednesday.

"Most of these figures have simply been invented by all sorts of interests. The number of refugees has been inflated," he asserted. Pressed about exactly how many there were, he said, "My guess is as good as yours."

His assertion prompted a firm rebuttal by Catherine Bertini, executive director of the UN World Food Program, which has been feeding many of the refugees during their diaspora.

"The people who ran the camps were international civil servants. So I can't imagine they have a reason to inflate the figures," she told reporters Wednesday.

One international aid worker, who requested anonymity, went further.

"I think it's in the interests of both the Rwandan and US governments to assert that there are no more refugees left. That way no aid goes to the former Hutu soldiers and militiamen who are still at large in the hills and the camps, which were such a security threat to the Rwandan government, are not rebuilt."

The aid worker and others say that pretending there are no more refugees helps Rwanda protect its borders and prevents former enemies from returning - by either closing the frontier or starving them out. The government fears camps will be reestablished where perpetrators of the genocide are fed along with the refugees, whom they once virtually held hostage.

While accusations fly, so do rumors about the whereabouts of the elusive refugees. The latest unconfirmed report is that about 100,000 people are moving north toward Goma in Zaire to cross back into Rwanda.

For weeks, hundreds of thousands of refugees reportedly went missing into the hills, stoking concerns of a humanitarian crisis unparalleled in modern history. Then Zairean rebels, backed by Rwanda, attacked the camps. The refugees emerged from the hills, looking fit. They began the exodus home, throwing into question the need for the protection force.

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