Rwanda Refugee Flood Continues As War Ends

Rebel government urges refugees to return, as relief agencies struggle to meet needs

RWANDA'S genocidal civil war appears to be nearly over, won by the Tutsi rebels.

The mostly Tutsi rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) declared itself the winner of the civil war on July 18 and announced a new government headed by two Hutus. ``There is no need for anyone to flee Rwanda,'' said RPF Maj. Gen. Paul Kagame. ``We guarantee all Rwandans stability and security.''

But the 1 million hungry and thirsty refugees here, mostly Hutu, fear going home again, even though the rebels have declared a cease-fire and established a provisional government with a Hutu at the helm.

``They [the Tutsi rebels] want to kill me,'' says Sara Nbayarage, a Hutu sitting barefoot on a plastic sheet, articulating the fears of many of the refugees who have inundated this town since July 14. ``We can't live with them. Ever.''

The flood of people on the main road has slowed traffic to a crawl. Embankments are covered with sprawling civilians and defeated Rwandan soldiers. Empty lots have become spontaneous camps where hundreds of thousands wait with what Nan Borton, a senior US relief official, describes as ``dead eyes'' from exhaustion, fear, and lost hope.

Ms. Borton and Filippo Grandi, an emergency officer with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) here, say many refugees may die of disease, dehydration, and starvation before feeding camps can be established.

UNHCR says another 100,000 have fled from the French-protected safety zone in southwest Rwanda since July into Bukavu, Zaire, with an unconfirmed 400,000 more headed toward the Zairian border July 19.

``The solution is political,'' Mr. Grandi says, adding that the refugees must go home.

Needs of rebuilding

The Tutsis represent about 15 percent of Rwanda's 7.5 million pre-war population. They need the Hutus, who make up 85 percent, to return in order to farm, run businesses, and help administer the country. ``It's impossible for them to rule alone,'' one European diplomat says.

But verbal assurances of safety by the incoming Tutsi-controlled government are not enough. Hutus ``are afraid of the new government,'' says Gilbert, a primary-school teacher who is now a refugee here. But ``people have to live together. For more than 30 years we [Hutus and Tutsis] lived together; we ate together.''

Gilbert, who did not want his last name used, says Hutus fear going back to Rwanda ``without the [Rwandan] Army and local authorities.'' A meeting must take place between those authorities and the people the RPF is putting in power, he says.

The RPF, however, does not want to deal with most of the Army. The rebels blame many of the local authorities for leading the slaughter of more than 500,000 Tutsis since April 6.

The RPF has named Faustin Twagiramungu as prime minister and Pasteur Bizimungu as president. Both men are Hutus. The new government will also include representatives of various parties that were in opposition to the ousted government but not people from the former ruling party.

Brian Atwood, director of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) who visited Goma on July 18, voiced optimism. ``The military victory has been achieved, and the naming of a government with two Hutus as president and prime minister is a positive thing.''

Hutus might be assured that it is safe to return home if the UN establishes UN-patrolled ``safety zones'' across the country in addition to those now manned by the French, Grandi says.

Needs outweigh resources

Some refugees here have already died. Very little food has been distributed, though plane loads are beginning to arrive. There are not enough trucks to distribute the food or personnel to set up camps. And water is in critical shortage.

``There's not enough of anything,'' says Borton, director of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance for the USAID. ``This is the largest [concentration of refugees] I've every seen,'' she says. The United States has allocated $35 million for the crisis here.

Daan Everts, assistant executive director of the UN World Food Programme, says some 3 million Rwandans inside and outside the country need food relief.

``The food is coming [to Goma],'' he says. But it may take two weeks to get the supply up to a level of minimal subsistence, he says. UN and other relief officials are trying to borrow airplanes, trucks, and food from other relief needs, including Ethiopia and Eritrea (both now facing famine), and southern Sudan.

People are tense. A fight with sticks and stones broke out in front of our vehicle for unclear reasons. There has been armed looting. Pickup trucks crowded with heavily armed Zairian soldiers patrol the streets. Some Rwandan soldiers still have weapons, though few are on display openly. Most children here are too tired to smile and laugh, which somehow they usually do in most other crises.

The world must respond with ``heroic efforts'' to save lives here, but has not so far, says Lionell Rosenblatt, president of Refugees International, a private agency based in Washington. He says the US military should provide logistical support.

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