Fearful Rwandans stick it out in Goma

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The Independent Online

Associated Press

Goma - Zaire's patience ebbed yesterday as a United Nations effort to end the country's refugee crisis foundered, but not even the threat of more expulsions could budge most people from the shabby camps that have become home.

A handful of Rwandans left on UN trucks on Saturday, their last view one of fellow countrymen determined to stay behind. The remaining refugees rebuilt huts burned by Zairean soldiers last week after five days of terror aimed at forcing Rwandans to leave.

Adrien Kalinunda's family, however, did not wait for a political resolution. With his wife and six of their seven children, he boarded the single repatriation bus that chugged back to Rwanda on Saturday. Missing was 10-year-old Isabelle, who was rounded up and deported after Zairean soldiers attacked their camp last week.

Mr Kalinunda said he had wanted to go home for a long time, but extremist Hutu militias in the camps view those planning to return as traitors and sometimes kill them. "I think most people want to go back," he said. "They would have gone back a long time ago if they hadn't been prevented. But since the Zaireans attacked, the militias haven't raised their heads for a week. They're all hiding in the mountains."

The mayor, Mashako Mamba Sebi, summed up the exasperation of Goma's 200,000 people with the refugees who flooded in last year. "We are crushed here," he said. "What happened this past week was a good thing, because the international community was asleep. But if things don't move, we'll be obliged to start again."

Zaire suspended the expulsions, which drove out 15,000 refugees, after the UN High Commissioner for Refugees agreed to organise a voluntary repatriation programme. But since Friday only about 250 of the 1.2 million refugees living along Zaire's borders with Rwanda and Burundi have volunteered to return.

Nearly all the refugees are Hutus, the ethnic majority blamed for the massacres of at least half a million Rwandans during last year's civil war. Most victims were from the Tutsi minority, who later defeated the former Hutu regime and now holds power in Rwanda.

Hutus fear retribution from Tutsis if they return to Rwanda or Burundi, which has the same ethnic divisions. Indeed, many have grown accustomed to life in the camps, which number about 50 and range in population from 200,000 to a few hundred.

Those who return are screened at a UNHCR transit camp 14 miles inside Rwanda. Single young men are questioned closely by Rwandan officials to determine if they belonged to the militias that carried out last year's massacres. At least 30 suspected militiamen were detained last week.

UNHCR officials say they have the capacity to take home 5,000 refugees a day, and that it is too early to declare the repatriation effort a failure. The issue is to be discussed today in Geneva during a meeting between the Zairean Prime Minister, Kengo Wa Dondo, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata.