'The only refugees left in the camps are dead ones'

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The Independent Online
The UNHCR flag - two hands sheltering a human figure - still flutters over the refugee camps of eastern Zaire. But the only refugees left in them are dead ones.

Yesterday, on the edges of Katale camp, the most northerly of the 30 havens set up two years ago to house two million Rwandan Hutus, the bloated corpses of two women lie face down in a stream, other bodies lie near by.

Around them is evidence of the mass stampede when the camps were attacked during fierce fighting between Rwandan-backed Zairean rebels and the Interahamwe (Rwandan Hutu militias) two weeks ago. Looted buildings, burnt houses and piles of abandoned belongings bear testimony to one of the most expensive, failed humanitarian operations this century.

Some of those who lived to tell the tale of Katale, Kahindo, and Kibumba camps crossed the border into Rwanda yesterday. More than 300 had spent up to eight days walking through dense forest to reach safety. They survived on rainwater and roots and encountered fierce fighting. Three days ago they were caught in crossfire in the forest and many were shot. There was no time to bury the dead.

Yesterday, as the wounded were treated at a UN camp just inside the Rwandan border, one woman described how her baby daughter had been shot dead while being carried on her teenage daughter's back.

The arrival in Rwanda of the camp survivors is seen by some as a good sign. They have trickled in over the last few days. Some aid workers believe they are evidence that the absolute control of the Interahamwe over more than a million Hutu refugees still living in Zaire is weakening.

For others the stories they bring are profoundly worrying. For the refugees speak of being forced by their leaders deeper into Zaire. "The great majority are being forced west towards Mugunga camp," said Ray Wilkinson, of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. "Those who are managing to escape over the border are relatively few.

In the continuation of the Rwandan civil war on Zairean soil the great fear is that two years after brainwashing their people into the genocide of 800,000 of their fellow Tutsis, before leading them into exile in Zaire, the Interahamwe are herding their people together for a last stand against Zairean rebels - including Tutsis - backed by Rwanda.

There are 500,000 men, women and children already gathered at Mugunga, the largest concentration of refugees in eastern Zaire. At least half have fled there in the past two weeks since the conflict broke out. The Interahamwe, who hijacked the camps and used them as bases from which to attack Rwanda, are in effect holding their own people hostage.

The Interahamwe are behaving in character. Their control methods are violent and brutal. One aid worker said yesterday that they periodically lynched refugees who tried to leave the camps to return to Rwanda. The militias taxed refugees to finance their operations. Their aim has always been to reclaim Rwanda.

Many fear the international community may be willing to sacrifice refugees' lives by delaying humanitarian aid backed by an international force to ensure the Interahamwe are neutralised by the rebel forces.

Aid agencies are frustrated by the international community's prevarication. They warn there is no time to lose before disease and starvation kill many. Two years ago, 10 days after the refugees arrived in Zaire, 50,000 died of cholera.

A spokeswoman for Medecins sans Frontieres said yesterday that disease had almost certainly already broken out and would claim many lives within days. Alluding to the ambivalence towards the refugees, many of whom took part in the genocide, she said it would be easy to conclude that for many the solution to the regional destabilisation was the death of the refugee population.