Agony of Zaire's exiled innocents

UN battles to cope with refugees
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Kisangani - United Nations agencies, accused by Rwanda's government of delaying repatriation, struggled yesterday to clear a backlog of some 2,000 Rwandan refugees waiting to be airlifted home from Zaire.

Aid officials said a train with more than 1,200 refugees pulled into Kisangani on Wednesday night and workers scrambled to cram them in a transit camp near the city's largest airport.

The train, the second to arrive on Wednesday, was organised by the Tutsi- dominated rebel Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo- Zaire (AFDL). The sudden influx threatened to overwhelm UN facilities. The rebels were condemned last week for blocking access to the refugees.

"There is a sense that so much attention was paid to the obstacles we encountered that they are now eager to show how many people they can bring up to Kisangani," UNHCR spokesman Paul Stromberg said.

But yesterday Rwanda's government accused the UN of delaying repatriation and said it was ready to work directly with the AFDL. The government statement contrasted with UN, European Union and US expressions of concern this week about the treatment of the Hutu refugees by the Tutsi-dominated rebels. The refugees fled Rwanda in 1994 and are accused by minority Tutsis of genocide in Rwanda. Aid officials estimated the backlog in Kisangani at about 2,300 refugees yesterday. Mr Stromberg said agencies had so far located only 20,000 of nearly 100,000 refugees south of Kisangani and "at a certain point we will have to turn our attention to finding the others."

After weeks of delaying a UN airlift, rebels said on Sunday that UN agencies had 60 days to repatriate all Rwandan refugees. UN officials have said it is impossible to repatriate all 100,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees south of Kisangani and another 250,000 unaccounted for in Zaire within 60 days.

There was considerable confusion over the timing of talks between President Mobutu Sese Seko and the rebel leader Laurent Kabila. They were originally scheduled for today and were then said to have been put off until tomorrow because the harbour in Libreville cannot accommodate the ship they plan to meet on.

The photographs on this page were taken in Zaire recently by Sebastiao Salgado, one of the world's leading photojournalists.

Born in Brazil, he specialises in the plight of Third World. His images of Brazil's landless poor are being exhibited at St James's Church, Piccadilly, London W1