Life in Zairean Camps: Stable, but Some Violence

Conditions are improving in camps around Goma, but some relief deliveries have been suspended due to gang-style clashes

LIFE for the approximately 850,000 Rwandan refugees in camps here - the highest concentration of refugees in the world - has settled into a rugged and dirty routine.

Prospects for survival are better than they were a few weeks ago, when cholera was taking a high toll. A predicted epidemic of dysentery has not taken hold. And food and water are reaching the refugees in much greater quantities.

But an undercurrent of violence now pervades the camps, according to private relief workers and UN officials.

Food aid has been sporadically suspended in the last several days because of rioting attributed to gangs stealing food.

Zairean troops and refugees have clashed several times, resulting in the deaths of several refugees and at least one Zairean soldier. The clashes revolved around attempts by the soldiers to steal from the refugees, according to relief workers here.

And some violence is occurring among the refugees for reasons that are not entirely clear.

``I'm quite sure people are being killed,'' says Robert Hauser, head of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) operations in Goma.

Refugees interviewed in Rwanda after leaving camps here say they have not been physically blocked or threatened about going home. But that may vary from camp to camp.

The Mugumba camp, one of several in the Goma area, has thousands of soliders among its estimated 250,000 to 500,000 refugees. Theodore Rectenwald, a staff member with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), says some refugees have been ``dying mysteriously'' at the camp.

There is a lot of pressure on people who want to return to Rwanda, he says. Going back means accepting life under the RPF, he adds, which is something the Hutu militants do not accept.

Those trying to influence people to stay most likely were involved in genocide, and they fear reprisals if they go back. They may want the refugees to stay as a kind of bargaining chip for a negotiated safe return of the leaders of the previous regime.

``People who have been trying to get people to go back'' have been killed at night in the camps, says a relief official who asked not to be identified.

``They cut people's feet'' who have returned to the camps after crossing the border to check on conditions in Rwanda, he adds.

Yet despite such threats, a subtle change is occurring among refugees in the Goma camps: They are beginning to talk about going home.

``We'll go,'' says Celestine Myanohuri, sitting among the squalor of chest-high huts and cook fires on a rocky volcanic plain. ``To go is good.''

An old man sitting nearby agrees, but adds: ``I don't want to go alone.''

Although these refugees still talk about how the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) allegedly will kill them if they go back, they speak with much less fervor than they did two or three weeks ago.

Word is seeping back from those who have returned to Rwanda that, except for some isolated incidents of violence allegedly by the RPF, things are generally safe.

Most of the refugees are farmers, and the September planting season is just around the corner. Life at home was never easy, but for most of the refugees, conditions were certainly better than they are here.

Even so, aid agencies are concerned about another mass exodus to Bukavu, Zaire, after French troops yesterday handed over control of one-third of the French humanitarian safety zone in southwestern Rwanda to Ghanaian United Nations peacekeepers. The United States asked France to delay the withdrawal of troops beyond an Aug. 22 deadline, but France quashed those hopes yesterday.

Meanwhile, circumstances are slowly improving among the camps in the Goma area.

``We're getting just about enough food. Water is OK,'' says Bruce Wilkinson, a relief worker in one of the camps for World Vision, a charity based in the US.

``The population is a lot stronger physically,'' says one UN official here.

Many small markets run by refugees or Zaireans have sprung up along the roadsides. Food items as well as supplies such as soap or clothing are for sale.

``There's an awful lot of free enterprise going on on the streets, which is always a good sign,'' says Catherine Bertinni, executive director of the WFP, who toured one of the camps recently.

And the miles of bodies that once lined the roads have been collected and buried in common graves behind the camps.

Just outside the Mugumba camp, a funeral procession of several Zairean Boy Scouts bang on empty cooking oil tins as they walk down a crowded street. They have been helping to collect bodies.

And outside a hospital there is only one pile of bodies where two weeks ago there had been several.

Yet about 90 to 100 people are still buried each day at the Mugumba camp. It is not unusual for 100 people a day to die in any collection of people that large, Ms. Bertinni says.

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