IN the shadow of a smoldering volcano in northern Zaire, a multitude of Rwandan refugees are running out of food but refuse to go home.
Their intractability is creating instability for the rest of central Africa and a moral dilemma for foreign donors. And pressure to resolve the crisis intensified last week when a new legion of refugees streamed over Zaire's borders from Burundi, where similar ethnic tension between Hutus and Tutsis is brewing.
Nine months after 2.2 million Hutus fled Rwanda after the fall of their government and the genocide of up to 1 million Rwandans -- mostly from the rival Tutsi ethnic group -- the refugees are defiantly staying put. In Zaire, Burundi, Uganda, and Tanzania, their refrain is the same: They are afraid of reprisals back home.
But experts say the reason for their resistance is more complex. Some 30,000 ex-Rwandan soldiers and 10,000 militiamen who took part in the slaughter are intimidating the refugees and keeping them from going home to increase their leverage on the new Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) government.
Western countries, suffering donor fatigue and ambivalence about feeding authors of genocide, say the aid pipeline is drying up. And host countries such as Zaire warn their hospitality is wearing out.
But camp leaders say they cannot go home while the Tutsi-dominated government, which came to power after a three-and-a-half year civil war, has put 27,000 mainly Hutus in jail and seized their houses. They accuse the West and Kigali government of using food as a weapon, a charge denied by the UN and aid organizations.
''As long as that government is in power, most of the refugees will not go home. It is impossible to force people back by starving them,'' says Stanilas Mbonampeka, justice minister of the ousted government, who lives in comfortable exile in Goma. He has called for negotiations on power-sharing.
''The people here think the government is trying to starve them out. We could stay forever and die here rather than go back under the current circumstance,'' echoes Tharcisse Gatarama, a leader in the Kimbumba refugee camp.
Goma became a symbol of failed international efforts last July when 30,000 died on the hard volcanic rock from epidemics in an unprecedented humanitarian disaster.
Today, the Dante-esque image of bodies piled high is gone. Bananas and beans grow over the mass graves. Many refugees enjoy better health conditions than Goma's 200,000 people. The camps are like vibrant towns made of tents -- complete with fancy cars, flourishing nightclubs, shops, banks, and schools.
The refugees have settled in, and repatriation from Zaire has slowed from 1,000 people a week to 300, the UN World Food Program (WFP) says. Only 300,000 Rwandan refugees have returned home over the past year. But new Hutu arrivals appear daily in Goma from Rwanda, frightening refugees with tales of repression by the RPF government.
Aid officials say many refugees are intimidated into remaining by Hutu militiamen and former government officials who forced them to make the trek in the first place.
Aid workers say armed refugees believed to be militia members are staging daily cross-border incursions into Rwanda and are training for a possible resumption of civil war.
The aid workers fear further violence if donors continue to ignore appeals for more aid. Food rations at Goma have been cut from 21 ounces to 5.25 ounces per person a day, and the WFP says it can meet less than 50 percent of requirements over the next six months.
''Within two months, the refugees will grow desperate. It would be a complete disaster. The strong would fight the weak for food, ''says Andrei Kisselev, head of the International Federation of the Red Cross delegation in Goma. ''They could stray from the camp and loot. Then imagine how the Zaireans would react.''
Last November, 37 Hutu leaders alleged to have been involved in the genocide were expelled from Zaire's refugee camps, and Zairean troops, tired of intimidation by armed refugees, fired into a crowd at Katale camp located 30 miles north of Goma. The soldiers killed 24 refugees. Zaire has begun to deploy 1,500 elite troops to patrol the camps, which appears to have discouraged harassment, aid workers say.
Mutiri wa-Bashara, special adviser on refugees to Zaire's prime minister, said in a Monitor interview in Goma earlier this month that a deadline has been set for the refugees to be fully repatriated by June. ''Our hospitality can not continue. The international community must put pressure to create conditions for them to return home,'' he says.
The refugee crisis has also spawned environmental problems in Goma. An area where rare gorillas live is being deforested for firewood. And an active volcano nearby may erupt next year. Dario Tedesco, an Italian volcano expert, says the lava flow would miss the refugee camps but could spark panic, water problems, and challenges for aid planes.
UN officials believe the RPF government is split over what to do and is sending mixed messages to the refugees.
Some Rwandan officials would prefer that their enemies remain outside the country. Others want the refugees -- the bulk of whom were not murderers -- to return to Rwanda and till the fallow land. They also want to see those involved in genocide tried in court.
Joel Boutroue, head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees operation in Goma, says his organization would help repatriate the refugees but was not encouraging them to return to Rwanda ''because we can not guarantee their safety.''
He says the key to repatriation is to provide the proper law and order administration now lacking in Rwanda.
''Reconciliation is the only thing which can help repatriation,'' he says. ''At the moment, it is not coming easily.''