AS French troops begin pulling out of southwestern Rwanda today, relief officials hope a tidal wave of Hutu refugees does not flee the French-protected humanitarian safety zone for Zaire, fearing reprisals from the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).
So far, they are not fleeing in large numbers, said Abou Moussa, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) coordinator in Bukavu, Zaire, in a phone interview Sunday afternoon.
And at the last minute, the RPF, which now controls the rest of Rwanda, and the UN have come up with a plan to try to convince up to 1 million people in the French zone not to flee.
The RPF has agreed to keep its military out of the zone, at least for now, as more UN troops arrive to replace the French, who are scheduled to complete their departure by Aug. 22.
Civilian RPF officials and UN forces will be making joint appearances in the zone in coming weeks to try to convince the displaced they have nothing to fear from the new government.
The RPF's military ``are not going there until there is another arrangement'' with the UN's military mission in Rwanda,'' Rwanda's new Hutu Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramungu said in a Monitor interview here.
The whole transition operation from French to RPF authority is ``negotiable'' with the UN, he adds.
Maj. Gen. Romeo A. Dallaire, the Canadian head of the UN forces in Rwanda, said the process of the RPF taking over would be ``an evolutionary one ... [taking] a month or so.''
By Friday, Rwandans were fleeing the zone into Bukavu, Zaire, at the rate of 3,000 a day - triple the outgoing flow of a few weeks ago, according to Trevor Page of the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) in Bukavu. ``They say they're really scared with the French pulling out,'' he says.
But Mr. Moussa says others are returning to Rwanda from Bukavu. ``The situation is still normal here,'' he said. ``We don't know what can happen tomorrow. But there's no dramatic situation.''
Bukavu is ``very ill-prepared'' for a deluge of refugees, he said. ``We're living on a plane-to- mouth basis,'' he said of the airlift of food to Bukavu, which is barely keeping up with the current estimated 330,000 refugees already there.
In Bukavu, getting food ``pre-positioned is a luxury,'' says Anis Haider, WFP's regional manager for the Horn and East Africa. He says 4 million people are being assisted in and around Rwanda, including Burundi, Zaire, and Tanzania.
Some 200 tons of food a day may be diverted from Goma, Zaire, to Bukavu. Earlier estimates of more than 1 million refugees in Goma have been revised downward to about 850,000, due to overcounting, deaths, and returns to Rwanda, according to WFP. But that would not be nearly enough if another 1 million people flee to Bukavu.
Mr. Haider adds, ``We should be broadcasting a message: `We can't feed you in Bukavu.'''
``Bukavu will be worse than Goma,'' predicts a University-educated Rwandan in Gikongoro, the most populated town in the French zone.
Some of the displaced interviewed early last week in Gikongoro said they might not go to Bukavu. But others said they fear indiscipline among RPF soldiers might put them in danger when RPF troops arrive. No one had yet heard of the slower transition plan.
But a UN team visiting the area later in the week found people listening to radio speeches recorded the previous day when RPF leader Paul Kagame and some new ministers in the RPF government addressed the public near the northern border town of Ghisenyi. The speeches were aimed at encouraging Rwandans to come home from Goma.
Mass exoduses slowed
No mass exodus has occurred south of Gikongoro, an area where the French have already withdrawn troops. Ghanain troops have replaced the French in that area, says Ferry Aalam of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Gikongoro.
Mr. Aalam estimates up to 1 million may be displaced in the whole French-protected zone, including the portion from which the French have already left. ``We're overwhelmed,'' he says of efforts to feed that many people.
As the French pull out more than 2,000 troops, including logistics teams in Goma, some 800 Ghanaian troops and 140 from Chad are already in the safety zone. A contingent of 600 Ethiopian troops, to be airlifted at United States' expense, are due there later this month.
Philip Johnston, president of the US-based charity CARE, says the French should be asked ``to extend their stay ... until such time as the new soldiers are deployed.''
In an interview in Washington last week, following his visit to Rwanda earlier this month, Mr. Johnston told the Monitor's George Moffett that greater efforts should be made in the future to head off catastrophes like Rwanda and the pending crisis in neighboring Burundi, which has the same ethnic mix as Rwanda.
``The international community has a good track record of responding after crises have happened, but a poor record of interceding before total disintegration takes place. Preventative intervention would cost us only a fraction of the amount'' spent on relief,'' Johnston said. ``The pent-up pressure in these countries comes from the inability to foresee any improvement in their quality of life.''
He recommends that developed nations meet basic food and education needs of countries such as Rwanda to help relieve those pressures.