Refugee Relief in Rwanda Stymied by Fraud, Abuse, Inappropriate Donations

WHILE relief agencies rush to feed some 600,000 refugees fleeing to Rwanda to escape ethnic killings in neighboring Burundi, a separate massive feeding program in Rwanda has run into serious trouble.

Long before the arrival of the Burundi refugees, relief officials were feeding Rwandans displaced in a three-year civil war that ended in August. Though the program, currently feeding about 800,000 people, prevented what could have been widespread starvation, it is gripped by occasional violence and constant corruption, according to relief officials here.

Last month, for example, 26 employees of the Rwandan Red Cross were held hostage for several days by irate recipients angry over plans to move a food distribution site a few miles down the road. Relief workers and convoys have encountered frequent hostile confrontations. Manipulating aid

Hundreds of thousands of well-fed Rwandans also line up regularly for rations amid the truly hungry. Local Rwandan officials make a fortune selling illicitly obtained relief food, relief officials here say.

``This place is awash with food aid,'' while other places, such as the former Yugoslavia, are running low, says Trevor Page of the United Nations World Food Programme, lamenting the fraud he blames on local officials and merchants.

Mr. Page also complains that the displaced are selling their rations. Donors have been supplying mostly corn and corn oil, neither of which are ``part of the culture'' in Rwanda, according to Rwandan relief officials and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). ``Corn is not enough,'' says Rwandan relief worker Theophile Nziyarwo. ``The [displaced] sell their corn for vegetables and potatoes.''

In interviews, many displaced said that when they sell their corn and oil, local merchants pay too little. But when they buy from those merchants such things as beans and sweet potatoes, they are charged a high price. Merchants are having a heyday buying corn and whisking it off to local breweries, or exporting it across the border to Zaire, according to UN and other relief agency officials.

The displaced also sell their rations of cooking firewood, says a Western nurse at a camp for the displaced near Kigali, the capital.

As a result, the level of their food consumption ``goes down and down,'' and some of the displaced suffer from malnutrition, says the nurse.

After an investigation, the ICRC told donors, including the WFP, that they were sending the wrong food. ICRC chief delegate Phillippe Gaillard agrees that donors ``have to adapt'' to the needs of the displaced.

The problem of illegitimate recipients has also hurt nutrition among the displaced. Donors have not come up with their own registration lists of the displaced, so they use the government's lists, which they claim are inflated. Less for the refugees

``Food is being provided for 900,000 but spread out to 1.5 million,'' Page explains. That means less for the truly displaced, including Ephanie Mogamuwamria, who fled fighting in northern Rwanda in 1992 to this center, a sprawling, hillside camp for the displaced, just nine miles north of Kigali.

``I need to go home,'' she says. ``I have five orphaned children; my husband is dead.'' She says rebels of the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) killed him in June last year. ``If we can go back, we can cultivate.''

But such displaced are mostly of the majority Hutu ethnic group, who were targeted by the RPF during the war and fear going home until a neutral force can guarantee their safety.

Like most of the displaced in the camp, Mrs. Mogamuwarmira lives in a five-foot-high hut of twigs and leaves, covered with plastic. A couple of reed mats cover part of the dirt floor. In one corner are some old clothes, a few cooking pots, and a partially used sack of grain.

Mr. Nziyarwo, a Rwandan medical assistant in the camp, says people are not eating well. ``They don't have blankets, and their [huts] are not good. There's not enough water,'' he says. The demand for firewood has left surrounding hillsides barren. Women and men are now chopping up tree stumps left from earlier cuttings. Rations reduced

To try to reduce the amount of relief food reaching those who did not need it, in mid-August the ICRC cut by 50 percent all rations going to the displaced who have gone home. Crops were beginning to come in, too, ICRC officials note.

The reductions in rations ``have been fully accepted by this population,'' Mr. Gaillard says.

``They already have [grown] vegetables and potatoes. [Displaced residents] have been going back for two-and-a-half months. Should we see any problem of nutrition in the demilitarized zone, we will increase the ration,'' he says.

Tom Franklin, UNICEF representative in Rwanda, says donors must accept blame for the lack of coordination in the relief programs. ``We need a strategy,'' he says.

Regarding outright stealing of food, the government has promised for months to crack down, but little has been accomplished, relief officials say.

The stealing is a lucrative business that ``local leaders don't care'' to stop, claims Faustin Twagiramungu, who is scheduled to become Rwanda's new prime minister when a transitional government is set up with rebels and the government, under terms of the August peace pact.

Gangs steal food at distribution sites ``by force or threat,'' with full knowledge of local authorities, alleges ICRC worker Oliver Martin.

But Anastase Butera, a mayor in a rural area north of Kigali, denies local officials are involved. Displaced families, Mr. Butera claims, inflate the number of children they report having, as a survival tactic to get extra food to last till the next irregular delivery.

Then, as some families walked off away with their rations of only a few pounds of corn, he drove away in a pickup truck full of unopened bags of corn. He said it was for ``people who did not show up.''

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