Refugees on the Run: Settle Them In Zaire, or Send Them to Rwanda?

Along the shore of Lake Kivu, President Mobutu Sese Seko's vacation retreat now serves as a grandiose monument to the collapse of his authority in eastern Zaire. A 1970s nightmare of plastic and nylon, the opulent mansion has been thoroughly looted.

Strewn around the grounds are smashed furniture, women's clothing, unused mortar bombs, presidential portraits, and pictures of his girlfriends.

It is many years since Mr. Mobutu visited the palace outside the town of Goma, taken last week by Rwanda-backed rebels. It is unlikely that the dictator will vacation here again.

A spokesman for the rebel group, the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, Gen. Andre Kassasse Ngandu, declared the aim of his army was to "liberate Kinshasa," the capital of Zaire. He claimed the movement is a multiethnic coalition opposed to Mobutu's corrupt and bankrupt regime. He also denied that it is controlled by Rwanda's Tutsi-led government, or that it has separatist ambitions for the provinces of North and South Kivu, where many ethnic Rwandans have lived for generations.

"I speak Rwandan, but I was born at Masisi in Zaire," says Shayira Sariba, a heavily armed fighter guarding a downtown intersection. "We are Zaireans fighting for our country."

Keeping Kivu separate

Partition of the provinces is a reality on the ground, however. Rebel soldiers, many with the disciplined bearing of the Rwandan Patriotic Front-trained troops, are manning the border crossing from Rwanda and have sealed off the roads leading north and west out of Goma.

Only a few miles to the west lies Mugunga camp, thought to be the location of several hundred thousand starving, waterless Rwandan Hutu refugees. Over a million Hutus fled Rwanda in 1994 fearing reprisals for the former Hutu government's genocide of Tutsis. The refugees' condition can only be guessed at: The rebels have refused to allow aid workers to cross into Zaire, and journalists are prevented from going as far as the camps.

Refugees as pawns

A small number of Zaireans, driven into camps by last week's fighting, have reportedly managed to sneak back across rebel lines. They say that disease is rampant in the camps and people are dying in large numbers. The Zairean army had fled beyond the camp to the western town of Sake, they say, along with many Hutu refugees and the exiled Army of Rwanda's deposed Hutu government. Refugee members of that Army have been accused of launching raids into Rwanda and harassing Tutsi residents of Kivu.

The refugees are still the pawns at the center of a Central African power struggle, but in recent days the rules of the game have changed dramatically. Fed and sheltered by an increasingly unhappy United Nations, the refugees were seen by their deposed government as the foot soldiers for an eventual armed return to Rwanda.

On several occasions, Zaire has floated threats to deport them en masse. For Mobutu's discredited government, they were useful hostages to attract concessions from the international community and a means of destabilizing the hostile new government in Rwanda.

Now, however, the refugees, their Hutu leaders, and the Zairean government are in a much weakened position. The UN has quietly told its client nongovernmental organizations that it does not want the refugees to return to camp life: It wants them to go home.

One senior Western diplomat said any long-term humanitarian aid to the refugees will have to be delivered to the refugees inside Rwanda, not inside Zaire.

The policy of providing "humanitarian corridors" back to Rwanda is supported by the Rwandan government and the United States, which has shunned large-scale humanitarian operations in search of a more permanent solution.

"It's a fine line between starving people out and seeking a diplomatic solution," said a spokesman for the Irish-based Catholic aid agency Trocaire.

West may intervene

The US is considering sending troops for a French-proposed joint military intervention force in eastern Zaire. But that plan is unlikely to prove popular with Rwanda's government, which has accused France of offering military and diplomatic support to the deposed Hutu regime even after the anti-Tutsi genocide broke out.

Rwanda fears that such an intervention force would protect the Hutu refugees, including former Rwandan Army members accused of genocide, allowing them back into a life of aid dependency and guerrilla warfare.

The proposal was equally unpopular in Goma yesterday, but for different reasons. Zairean civilians accuse the French of seeking to bolster Mobutu, "who has stolen all the money in the country" and is now convalescing from surgery in France.

Goma resident Vincent Kalala said that government and military corruption had ruined the economy in eastern Zaire.

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