Charities warn of new Rwandan catastrophe

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The Independent Online
Almost one year since Hutu extremists unleashed an orgy of ethnic slaughter in Rwanda and the world stood passively by, the international community is failing to act to prevent another bloodbath, two leading British charities said yesterday.

Oxfam and Save the Children said that a food crisis caused by a poor international response to the needs of 2.5 million Rwandan refugees is threatening mass starvation in camps in Zaire, Tanzania and Burundi. And they said the food shortage was playing into the hands of the extremists who were responsible for the systematic slaughter of as many as 1 million Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus.

"We believe there is a threat of a major future potential catastrophe in the region, not just from malnutrition and starvation," Stewart Wallis, overseas director of Oxfam, said. "There is a growing sense we are sitting on a powder keg and the food crisis could be what ignites it."

A United Nations World Food Programme appeal for $385m is still at least $187m short."Some governments have been very generous, but overall the international community has failed and is failing again. I am afraid that another crisis is lurking," Mr Wallis said.

Food rations have already been halved in some camps, and in Tanzania supplies are expected to run out by the end of next month. The charities said that unless the situation was remedied "the poor and most vulnerable refugees will starve, especially women and children".

Mark Bowden, Save the Children's Africa director, said the food shortage would lead to instability and strengthen the former Hutu government leaders' hold over vulnerable refugees.

Millions of refugees poured into Zaire, Tanzania and Burundi last July after the Hutu government army was defeated by the mainly-Tutsi rebels of the Rwandese Patriotic Front. For the exiled Hutu government, the refugees and the 30,000 men in the defeated army who fled with the civilians are bargaining chips to press the new government in Kigali for direct talks on a power-sharing agreement.

Many of the refugees already reject relief groups' explanation of why food rations have been cut back and have accused the international community of conspiring with Kigali to starve them into returning to Rwanda. Should aid workers be forced out of the camps,the charities said that repatriation efforts would be compromised, and violence between refugees and local people would increase

Mr Bowden put much of the blame on the European Union for the lack of decisive long-term action. But he and Mr Wallis added that food aid was just part of the problem and the international community had to find a political solution that would enable refugees to return home.

Earlier this week, the UN special envoy to Rwanda, Shaharyar Khan, accused the international community of having betrayed Rwanda. Little aid money has arrived despite international donors pledging $577m in January to help a government rehabilitation and reconciliation programme.