Political Agenda of Zaire Rebels Stalls Food Flow to Refugees

Fighters talk revolution but may be trying to halt Hutu attacks on Rwanda

The first humanitarian aid to reach rebel-held eastern Zaire is trickling across the border, flowing into an empty football stadium and stagnating in the sun.

On Nov. 11 and 12, aid agencies entered across the Rwanda-Zaire border only to be cooped up in Goma's ironically named Unity Stadium.

The Rwanda-backed rebels have yet to authorize the distribution of aid, and the agencies were not permitted to make independent assessments.

On Nov. 11, the United Nations called the humanitarian situation here so grave that it allowed its agencies to enter Zaire without permission from the government in Kinshasa.

But the UN vehicles have joined those of the nongovernmental organizations in the stadium. The rebels, it seems, are not to be hurried.

Goma has been largely cut off from the world for almost a month, and many residents are going hungry. There is food in the markets, but prices are too high for the poor and those displaced by recent fighting. People scrambled to catch high-energy biscuits hurled from a stray aid truck as crowds gathered at a UN depot.

"The situation is very dramatic," says the Rev. Paul Ndjeksa, a Methodist minister here. "Children are lost. Families are lost. They all need food and assistance."

The cause of Goma's isolation remains officially unexplained. To the west and north is a war zone where the rebels - supposedly Zairean-born Tutsis - successfully battled the allied forces of the Zairean Army and the Interahamwe, the genocidal militia of Rwanda's exiled Hutu regime.

To the east, however, there is no conflict. The rebels of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for Liberation of Congo-Zaire are believed to be backed by Rwanda's Tutsi-dominated government. President Mobutu Sese Seko's crumbling regime has accused Rwanda of supplying the rebels' suspiciously effective front-line troops.

Yet for two weeks the border crossings between Zaire and Rwanda have been closed much of the time and ordinary cross-border trade and contacts cut off. Aid workers were banned until Nov. 11, when they were grudgingly admitted.

Journalists have at times been admitted freely; at other times rounded up and expelled in the night. The people of Goma, who have no love for the brutal, ill-disciplined, and rapacious Zairean Army, are now voicing their doubts about the rebels who drove it away.

"We need a multinational force to come here and calm the situation," Mr. Ndjeksa said Nov. 11. "We don't know who these people are or what their plans for the future are."

The rebels have made no apparent effort to engage in dialogue with the people of Goma or see to their welfare. They seem content to secure the town and suppress looting, while their supposed leader, Laurent Desir Kabila, makes grand declarations about the liberation of all Zaire. Their indifference to the state of Goma and its citizens has convinced many observers that the rebel agenda has more to do with Rwanda than Zaire.

Nine miles west of Goma lies Mugunga camp, the last known location of 500,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees. The camp is controlled by the Interahamwe and the former Rwandan Army, which continues to sporadically shell Goma.

Rwanda's government has complained about guerrilla infiltration from the camps since July 1994, when up to 2 million Rwandan Hutus fled their homeland. 1.1 million have remained in Zaire, fearing reprisals for the Hutu-led massacre of 800,000 Tutsis and 30,000 moderate Hutus.

While undoubtedly fed by a complex web of internal Zairean ethnic conflicts, the current rebellion has given the Rwandan government a welcome chance to break the Interahamwe's power over the refugees and force them to return home.

This goal is shared by the US, the UN, and most of the international community, which agree that aid should come in the form of "humanitarian corridors" designed to steer an estimated 800,000 refugees home.

Many observers now say that the rebels and their Rwandan friends are controlling the movements of foreign observers so they can put off the inevitable humanitarian outcry until the Interahamwe has been defeated.

"In 1994 it was all humanitarian [aid] and no politics," says Samantha Bolton, a spokeswoman for the aid agency Doctors Without Borders. "This time its going to be all politics and very little humanitarian [aid]."

Rather than risk a battle with Hutu militiamen in a teeming refugee camp, Rwanda and its allies may prefer to starve them out.

There remains one other possible explanation for the rebels' indifferent treatment of Goma, their de facto capital: They may be divided and uncertain what to do with it.

Mr. Kabila, a veteran of many failed rebellions against Mr. Mobutu, was himself at one time at odds with Zairean Tutsis. His claim that his alliance is a multiethnic coalition seems true enough. But in Zaire's divisive politics, such a coalition could have little more in common with the intruding Rwandans than dislike of Kinshasa's corrupt regime. Only 10 days after the rebel victory, old Zairean habits are creeping in.

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