A GIANT, underfunded rescue operation is gearing up to feed and shelter an estimated 500,000 to 1 million refugees who have fled in the past few days from Rwanda into Zaire, just ahead of rebel advances.
The exodus is one of the largest and most rapid human flights in nearly half a century. UN officials say the total may already have exceeded 1 million, and could continue to rise if fighting continues in Rwanda.
Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) officials showed no signs yesterday of preparing to declare a cease-fire before consolidating their military position near Zaire.
Starting last Thursday, a flood of women, children, and men, carrying sleeping mats, old blankets, and small quantities of food on their heads, trudged across the border from northwestern Rwanda into Goma, Zaire. They quickly filled almost every available space in the town, including a soccer stadium and open fields. Exhausted and frightened, they lit small cooking fires to eat the little they had managed to carry with them.
United Nations World Food Programme officials say the exodus ``may be the world's largest humanitarian crisis'' today. ``To avert a major humanitarian catastrophe, additional donor assistance is needed,'' says Catherine Bertini, WFP executive director.
The only relief agency with food supplies in Goma when the exodus began was the International Committee of the Red Cross, which had been urging other donors to preposition food stocks. WFP has begun airlifting food from the Kenyan port of Mombasa, diverting it from other regional relief needs.
Over the weekend, UNICEF was sending two plane loads from Copenhagen to Goma of blankets, medical supplies, and plastic jerry cans for carrying water.
Another 40 to 60 tons of health kits, drinking mugs, and blankets will be shipped early this week by truck from Bujumbura, Burundi, to Lake Kivu, then onward by barge to Goma, which is also on the lake, says Paula Claycomb, a UNICEF information officer here.
Relief officials admit frankly that they were unprepared for the mass exodus into Zaire.
``Nobody would have expected this.... Things have evolved very quickly in the last 10 days,'' says Charles Petri, a UN emergency relief officer for Rwanda.
``We were expecting a status quo'' in the military situation, he says.
UN relief supplies had been prepositioned in neighboring Burundi in expectation of a massive flow of refugees there. Creation of a French-protected humanitarian safety zone along the Burundi border by the French in late June resulted in an estimated 500,000 Rwandans who might have fled from the rebel RPF advances into Burundi staying on the Rwandan side in the zone.
Their plight is also desperate at the moment. The town of Gikongoro, Rwanda, which this correspondent visited July 6 and 7, is jammed with people milling around in need of assistance.
Chris Hennemeyer, director of the Rwanda office of Catholic Relief Services in Bujumbura, says the displaced in the Gikongoro area are getting less than one-third of the food they need, largely due to lack of trucks.
Not anxious to take on the French guarding the zone, the RPF turned instead last week on the remaining government strongholds outside the zone, along the Zaire border.
Asked why such attacks were launched, especially since they were certain to cause massive flight of civilians, Charles Murigande, RPF representative to the United States, responded in a telephone interview, ``We'd like the new [RPF] government to rule over the entire country. We are not going to have [our] government in two-thirds of the country and another in one-third of the country.''
He blamed the exodus into Zaire partly on the fear of getting caught in cross-fire. But he also blamed vitriolic, anti-RPF propaganda broadcasts by a clandestine, mobile radio station operated by the nearly defeated Rwandan government.
During the past three months, the same radio propaganda has urged the Rwandan majority Hutus to slaughter minority Tutsis. Most of the rebels are Tutsis; the government was Hutu-dominated.
Dr. Murigande, a mathematician, accuses the international community of doing nothing to shut down the station. He claims US officials are reluctant even to jam the station because of concerns that no legal authority exists for such action.
``When a radio is causing hundreds of thousands of deaths, people are still saying: `We don't have legal authority,''' he complains.
But the West is beginning to distance itself from the nearly defeated Rwandan Hutu government: The US cut diplomatic ties on Friday, and President Clinton has accused it of supporting ``genocidal massacre'' of Tutsis. He ordered the Hutu government's embassy to close and its diplomats to leave the country.
The move opens the way for the US to recognize the rebel-dominated government, which is being set up in the capital, Kiglai.
And last week, the French military said fleeing officials of the Rwandan government would not be welcome in the French-protected humanitarian zone, though some of the officials apparently have fled there anyway.