Thousands of Hungry Refugees Trickle in From Zaire's Forests


A week after the massive return of refugees to Rwanda, small groups of desperate humanity continue to file down from the thickly forested volcanoes of northeastern Zaire.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimated last Friday that 3,000 Rwandan Hutus had appeared out of the forest above the now-abandoned Mugunga camp.

Many more thousands were reported to have appeared over the weekend, as Western and African military leaders met in Stuttgart, Germany, to debate the need for a multinational intervention force. Aid agencies and Western countries continue to disagree over the refugees' numbers and whether they are significant enough to warrant help.

The returning refugees said many more thousands are still wandering in the mountains, living off rainwater and what little food they can find. Exhausted and often emaciated, many of them have been fugitives ever since Zairean rebels overran camps north of Goma about three weeks ago.

Refugees who arrived at Mugunga said many others were unable to last as long. Moussa Halimdintwali was the leader of a small group of refugees that turned up on Saturday, 26 days after they fled fighting at another camp. "I had three children, but two died in the forest," he said calmly. "Many, many people died in the forest from hunger, disease, and fatigue, but thirst killed most people." Mr. Halimdintwali said perhaps one-third of the 600 people he set out with had died.

And there are also persistent reports that another danger lurks in the forests. Alex Kabamga, an ICRC volunteer at Mugunga, said he had seen several refugees arrive with machete and bullet wounds. A number of Hutu refugees have claimed that Zairean rebels, known generally as the Banyamulenge, dominated by ethnic Tutsis and supported by Rwanda's Tutsi-led government, were taking revenge for the 1994 massacre of up to a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus by Hutu extremists.

The first journalists to enter Mugunga camp last week found the bodies of 40 massacre victims. Survivors in the area claim the Banyamulenge were to blame. John Munyaneza, a teenager who fled Kahindo camp three weeks ago, said he didn't know who was attacking, but that fear was the main reason why people had spent so much time in the forest.

The survivors' reports paint a confused picture of the situation in the forest. Some of the arriving refugees told journalists they had been attacked by the Banyamulenge or even Rwandan soldiers, while others said they had been helped by them. Others claimed they were attacked, looted, and intimidated by members of the Rwandan Hutu militia responsible for much of the 1994 genocide.

A European aid worker in Mugunga, who asked not to be named, said that Banyamulenge troops arrived on Thursday evening just as the aid workers were leaving. Rebels began separating the men and boys from a group of Rwandan Hutus waiting to be transported to the frontier the next day. When she returned the next day the male refugees were not there.

The refugees coming from the forest all agree on two things: that many more remain in the bush, and that many have died. Their plight is another twist to the problem of the "missing" refugees, a cause for sharp debate over the past week. Both Rwanda and the US have declared that the return of an estimated 500,000 refugees since Nov. 15 has effectively ended the refugee problem. Few, if any refugees remain, they argue, and there is therefore no need need for the multinational humanitarian intervention force championed by France.

Rwanda's government blames the UN and foreign-aid agencies for allowing exiled Hutu extremists to settle down in the Zairean camps around Goma and Bukavu in 1994, planning to use them as springboards for a future invasion. Now that the victorious Banyamulenge have emptied their camps, Kigali is extremely wary of any military or humanitarian effort that would alter the new status quo.

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