Rwanda's Ricochet: Ethnic Strife in Zaire

RWANDA'S genocide in 1994 not only tore apart that country, but continues to cause havoc in neighboring countries as well. In Zaire, the influx of Rwandan Hutus is exacerbating existing ethnic conflicts.

Fighters from several ethnic groups in eastern Zaire - native Hunde people, and longtime Hutu and Tutsi exiles - have long raided one another's villages and engaged in small battles with little more than spears, machetes, and bows and arrows.

Now, with the arrival of more than a million Rwandan Hutu refugees in camps in Goma since 1994, the homeland of the fiercely independent Hunde people, in the province of Masisi, is in a state of chaos.

The Rwandan Hutus were fleeing victorious Tutsis, who regained power after the Hutu Army and militias killed more than half a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in a four-month rampage. Many ended up in teeming refugee camps. Others came here, some heavily armed.

Local officials say members of the militia and the former Rwandan Army who have been hiding among the refugee population in the Goma camps are aware that they cannot stay there forever and are exploring areas in the interior of Zaire for resettlement. Masisi Province was once one of the most productive agricultural regions in Zaire.

''It's a very, very brutal conflict,'' says Piera Borradori of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), in Goma. ''Masisi's not far from Goma, and Goma is a very civilized, modern town, but in Masisi there's real tribal fighting going on. The people look like warriors from another age, and they're targeting everyone: tiny children, women, and even old people.''

Zairean officials in Goma say they have started drafting troop reinforcements to deal with the conflict. The Zairean Defense Minister, Adm. Mavua Mudima, visited last month and expressed deep concern.

United Nations sources in Goma, however, say that while Zaire has outwardly condemned the violence, its Army has been assisting Rwandan Hutus in the camps. The Rwandan Hutu are joining with long-term Hutu exiles to drive the Hunde people out of Masisi. The Hunde have angered the Zairean government by agitating for greater autonomy.

International relief agencies, already struggling to cope with the Rwandan refugee program in Goma, are now overwhelmed by an exodus of civilians. The ICRC, one of the few relief agencies still working in Masisi, estimates that almost half the region's population of 600,000 is displaced.

In one week last month, 3,000 Zairean Tutsis fled the Masisi into neighboring Rwanda. Many came from families that had lived in Zaire since the end of the 19th century.

Those fleeing say the situation has deteriorated drastically since the arrival of the Rwandan Hutu refugees. Both the Hunde and the Tutsi communities in the Masisi accuse ethnic Hutus in the region of collaborating with members of the former Rwandan Army.

Mateka Hangi, a Hunde chief who was forced to flee his village in the Masisi, now lives in a church compound in Sake, a town on the edge of the province, sheltering beneath a makeshift hut built from palm leaves and bamboo. ''I know very well that the former Rwandan military and the [militia] want to take over Masisi and make it an annex of Rwanda,'' he says. ''It's highly regrettable to see the Rwanda Hutu militia bringing their ethnic strife here and making the Hunde people suffer in the country of their birth.''

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