THE French-protected zone in southwestern Rwanda was supposed to be a safe haven for refugees.
But more than 1 million people - mostly Hutus - are now taking flight from the area.
Within the past few days, at least 300,000 people have fled the zone to Bukavu, Zaire; another 150,000 have fled further south in Zaire; 50,000 have gone into Burundi, and some 750,000 more are heading toward the Zaire border, UN officials estimated yesterday.
Relief officials are already overwhelmed by 1 million refugees who fled from northwestern Rwanda into Goma, Zaire, last week, where hundreds are dying daily of cholera and from lack of food and water. That group was fleeing an area not protected by the French that came under attack last week by the mostly Tutsi-led rebels of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).
The medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) said yesterday that 800 refugees have died from cholera in the last 24 hours in camps around Goma.
The charity's ``posts are totally overwhelmed. Tens of thousands could die from this illness in the coming hours and days,'' said a recently issued statement from the organization, and two planes are being rushed in to help treat refugees.
No clear-cut reason exists for why there is a torrential exodus out of the French-protected zone since the RPF is not attacking the French safety zone, and the French military is still there.Hutu militants, Tutsi rebels, and the French government all share some of the blame, according to the United Nations, officials, diplomats, relief workers, and church leaders interviewed.
The Hutu militants continue to operate a clandestine mobile radio station that spits out anti-RPF propaganda stating that everyone in the path of the rebels will be slaughtered.
``The messages are very alarming,'' says Sybella Wilkes, an information officer for the UN Rwanda Emergency Office here.
The station operates on low frequency, which is hard to detect, and, according to a European diplomat, is run with the help of a Belgian. The Belgian courts have issued a warrant for the man's arrest. (The same station is trying to whip up support among refugees and defeated Rwandan soldiers to regroup and continue the war.)
The French have been fully aware of the station, but until now were reluctant to try to jam or destroy it. Now, after mounting international criticism of the station, the French have decided to knock it out of operation, according to a a diplomat from the United States.
Hutu militants, accused in a recent UN report of attempting genocide against the Tutsi, have also made personal appeals for people to leave the French zone, says a Catholic priest who has worked for a long time in the area. Hutu officials in the zone want ``all the people to leave,'' the priest says. ``They see they've lost.''
If masses of Hutus assemble in refugee camps such as those in Zaire, the Hutu militants could have a base from which to draw people so the war ``could continue 10 years,'' he adds.
Other analysts agree this could happen. The rebels have become the government; now the former government may become the rebels.
Another factor behind the rush out of the French zone could be that the zone sheltered many killers of moderate Hutus in southern Rwanda who had tried to stem the slaughter of Tutsis, the European diplomat says.
``The Hutu population is really afraid of revenge on the part of the RPF now that they've seen the French won't protect them,'' he says.
The French government said they would protect the people - but they also said they did not want to fight the RPF. Now they have said they are ready to negotiate with the RPF over protection of Rwandans in the zone.
The French ``are contradictory,'' the priest says. ``They've backtracked,'' says the European diplomat.
The French also have made clear their desire to return home soon - as early as the end of July. UN troops scheduled to replace them are not expected until late August. Though individual French officers have told journalists they would stay until a solid UN force is ready to replace them, Hutus in the area were in doubt.
``The French will protect us, won't they?'' a displaced Hutu asked this reporter earlier this month in Gikongoro, which is in the French zone.
Finally, the RPF may be partially to blame. An announcement last week by the RPF that they might attack the French zone unless the French expelled suspected killers from the area may have caused panic among Hutus.
Exodus may be RPF-driven
The French announced on Monday that former Hutu government officials - suspected organizers of the Tutsi slaughter - had fled to Zaire. But the RPF may have wanted to cause panic in the French zone, one relief official speculates. ``It could be they don't care if everyone goes to Zaire.
``They could do a clean sweep of the country, and... [for] those who want to come back, they start screening'' to detect suspected killers, he adds.
Applauding world efforts to help the new refugees, he then asks: ``Where was the world when their people [Tutsi] were being hacked to death?''
Meanwhile, in Goma, the massive crowds of refugees are beginning to thin out somewhat. More are walking to camps being set up outside the town, where some food has been distributed already.