Fears grow for Zaire's hidden `Holocaust'

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The Independent Online
They have been called the "missing masses" and their fate has been described as a "hidden holocaust".

As fighting erupted in eastern Zaire last month, aid agencies reported that hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees had been driven deep into the country's interior, beyond the reach of help.

The agencies warned that their numbers would be decimated by hunger, thirst and disease if an emergency relief operation could not be launched with all possible speed.

More than a month after the start of the conflict between the Zairean army and eastern Zairean rebels, no real evidence has emerged of the predicted humanitarian disaster.

Most of the Rwandan refugees who started to stream home from Zaire last Friday were in good physical condition. So keen were they to return to their neighbourhoods that few collected rations or field packs from United Nations agencies.

However, the number of uprooted people still stranded in Zaire's interior is being fiercely disputed.

Even though official estimates have been revised since the mass exodus of refugees last weekend, the UN says 600 to 700,000 Rwandan refugees are still unaccounted for inside Zaire.

The Rwandan government on the other hand claims that very few vulnerable groups still remain in eastern Zaire. "Most of the refugees who are based in Zaire have returned home", said Rwanda's vice-president Paul Kagame in the Rwandan capital Kigali yesterday.

The UNHCR, the United Nations' refugee agency, says that at least half a million Rwandan refugees crossed the border last weekend and that more than half a million still have to emerge from the hills and forests of Zaire.

That there is no hard evidence that these people are dying, says UNHCR, should not be an excuse for complacency.

"Some people have been away from food and water for more than a month," UNHCR spokesman Paul Stromberg told The Independent yesterday.

"Added together, the lack of food, shelter and medical care will combine to cause real problems. Their condition is probably becoming more desperate".

With plans for the deployment of an international force in Zaire beginning to falter, the Rwandan government continues to make clear its distaste for foreign intervention.

Yesterday, Mr Kagame, who is also defence minister, said that since last weekend there is no longer any need for thousands of troops to protect the distribution of relief supplies in eastern Zaire.

Rwanda has long been opposed to foreign intervention. The proposed international mission has been mandated to ensure food reaches the needy and that exiled Rwandans can return home.