500,000 find refuge at camp

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BENAKO - A sprawling refugee camp has sprouted on the hillsides overlooking Benako, near the Tanzanian border: thousands of tiny makeshift huts provide a home of sorts to the tide of humanity that fled Rwanda to escape weeks of inter-ethnic slaughter.

Stretching as far as the eye can see, the grass and branch shelters offer scant refuge to hundreds of thousands of Rwandans - up to 500,000, according to some aid agency reports - who poured into Tanzania when the killings started after the death in a suspicious plane crash on 6 April of Rwanda's Hutu president, Juvenal Habyarimana.

The Hutu-dominated government army and various Hutu militia have been accused of systematically butchering Rwandans from the Tutsi minority in revenge for the president's death, blamed by Hutu hardliners on the mainly-Tutsi rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).

As more blood is spilt in Rwanda, aid agencies are only just beginning the task of caring for Hutu and Tutsi refugees who have flocked to this temporary camp created by the Tanzanian authorities 16.5km (10 miles) from the border.

Half of those who have set up camp were uprooted from their homes before, having fled fighting in the north between government troops and the RPF. When the rebels advanced into the south-east of the country, the Hutus grabbed their children, a few pots, rush sleeping-mats and plastic sheeting donated by aid agencies the last time they were made homeless, and made for Tanzania.

Despite the trauma of the past few days, a semblance of order is emerging at the camp. A market already exists and some of the more canny refugees are selling cooked meat, having had the foresight to flee with their goats. The road to the border is dotted with makeshift stalls selling everything from soap and washing powder to toothbrushes and toothpaste, all at sky-high prices. Few can afford such meagre luxuries when a kilo of corn and a few vegetables cost a small fortune.

Jeremy Goliath Sumbili, an 18-year-old school pupil from the Byumba area north of the Rwandan capital Kigali, clenches a precious haul of half a dozen cobs of corn close to his chest, as a Baptist preacher, Jean-Pierre Serukato, from the south-eastern town of Kibungo, passes by with branches to finish his hut. Both tell how the 'cockroaches' - the nickname for the RPF - 'killed everyone in their path'.

'My wife and my children are dead,' said Mr Serukato, noting bitterly that the 'Hutu militia were just as bad.

'I sheltered Tutsis in my house who were afraid of being massacred,' he said, but in the end everyone decided to flee.

The camp accommodates both Hutus and Tutsis. But Etienne Krug, co-ordinator for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said he expected they would soon be separated to avoid trouble. However, more immediate problems are occupying aid workers. 'The main problem is water,' said Mr Krug.

He said that refugees are drawing water from a lake-cum-swamp but, he added that 'we have had to keep the refugees away from the lake because they wash everything in it, and then they draw water from it to drink'. Although currently epidemic-free, sanitary and health conditions at the Benako camp could deteriorate rapidly once the rainy season commences.

Dozens of women and children were lined up outside a small concrete building at the camp that serves as a Red Cross dispensary, awaiting a check-up and medicines.

'The most common complaints are malaria, respiratory infections in children, and diarrhoea is starting,' said a medical worker, Ian Donati. Few, he said, had arrived at the camp with wounds. The first emergency food rations arrived on Monday - '280 tons of beans because that is all we have at the moment,' said a Red Cross official, Marcus Dolder.

The rations are meagre, just one kilo per person for three days, but the aid agencies hope that, supplemented with the food they brought with them, the refugees will be able to hold out until further relief supplies arrive. Aid is expected to be flown into Mwanza airport south of Lake Victoria, said Mr Krug, and then driven by lorry to the camp in a 12-hour journey.

(Photograph omitted)