For almost three years, Western governments and aid workers tried unsuccessfully to encourage Rwandan refugees to return home. Now, when Rwandan refugees are saying they want to return, the delivery of food aid and medical assistance is being blocked and refugees are being hunted down and killed by Zairean rebels led by Laurent-Desir Kabila.
Following the 1994 arrival in Zaire of more than 1 million Rwandan refugees, it was common knowledge that many of the orchestrators of the Rwandan genocide - former government and military members, and Hutu militiamen - were using the refugee camps as havens. No serious effort was made to separate these manipulative individuals from the refugees.
When 600,000 Rwandan refugees returned home in the wake of the fighting in eastern Zaire last November, many pronounced the refugee problem over. Many thousands of refugees in the southern camps, however, were herded westward by armed elements in their camps and by rebel military pressure. One young man later recalled how militiamen beat an old man to death with a hammer after he simply asked that refugees be allowed to decide for themselves whether to return to Rwanda.
More than a month ago, 80,000 refugees, finally abandoned by their fleeing captors, began congregating in camps south of Kisangani, Zaire. Even after aid agencies reestablished contact, hundreds died from dehydration and dysentery. For almost two weeks, rebels kept aid workers from delivering lifesaving assistance to the refugees. Local Zaireans told journalists how the rebels had attacked the camps, killing many refugees. Aid workers discovered scores of dead and wounded refugees.
Reports of summary executions of refugees by rebel soldiers have been surfacing since last November. Recently, under mounting international pressure, Mr. Kabila gave aid agencies a 60-day deadline to repatriate all refugees in rebel territory, failing which, his troops would take matters into their own hands.
But little has changed. On April 28, the day after Kabila promised access to refugees, his local representatives would not allow aid workers to search for missing refugees. The following day, the rebels blocked a relief convoy carrying food. On May 4, 91 refugees died when the rebels sent an overcrowded train from one of the camps to Kisangani. Most recently, the rebels refused to let a UN human rights mission investigate alleged atrocities. Though nearly 20,000 refugees south of Kisangani have been repatriated, thousands have not reemerged from the forest and aid workers have not been permitted to search for them.
The stated objectives of the recent mission to Zaire by US Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson were to help bring about a smooth, nonviolent transition of power and to seek a solution to the festering refugee crisis. But the ambassador was unable to address fully the pressing humanitarian agenda. What is urgently needed now is a mechanism to monitor the implementation of Kabila's promises of access to the refugees and full cooperation with aid agencies. Similar promises made before have proved false. Having a senior US official dispatched to Zaire and reporting directly to the White House about the humanitarian situation is essential to ensure that the gains made by Ambassador Richardson are not lost.
* Kirpatrick Day, a field representative for Refugees International, recently returned from Kisangani, Zaire.