Food fails to lure Rwandans back home: Refugees are starving, but terrified to return to the killing grounds. Craig Nelson in Kibumba camp, Zaire, watches the battle for hearts and minds

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The Independent Online
WITH only 60 per cent of the emergency nutritional needs being met here, food is a powerful weapon in the battle for the hearts and minds of refugees in Zaire, a contest that puts remnants of the former Rwandan government, who want the refugees to remain in Zaire, against the aid agencies, who want them to return home.

At this and other camps in north-eastern Zaire, former local officials of the ousted Rwandan government oversee distribution of food after it is delivered by aid groups. They dole out donated supplies of rice, beans and maize to their constituents. At the same time, it is these loyalists of the former Hutu government on whom Rwandan refugees depend for an assessment on security conditions inside Rwanda, now under the control of the Tutsi-led Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF). And their appraisal, contrary to the views of UN and other aid officials, remains ominous.

Asked what will happen if he and his followers return to Rwanda, a former Rwandan official says: 'The RPF will kill us and gouge our eyes out.' Reinforced by these warnings, will hungry Rwandans bite the hand that feeds them and go home? 'Not any time soon,' says a UN source. Mercedes Sayagues of the World Food Programme, an arm of the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation, concedes the food distribution in the camps is 'open to abuse' but insists it is inevitable. 'Anything given for free will be manipulated.'

International aid organisations have also used food for their own designs. Following the estimated influx of nearly 1.2 million Rwandan refugees into eastern Zaire two weeks ago, UN logistics experts designated half a dozen sites in the area as 'official' refugee camps. There, they began depositing food and water in hopes they said, of luring refugees north from the inundated Zairean border town of Goma. That strategy was costly, for left off the UN list was Munigi, a lava field three miles from Goma where 100,000 refugees had congregated overnight.

Without food and clean water, conditions at Munigi quickly deteriorated, until last week they spawned the first confirmed cases of cholera, which has now taken the lives of 18,000 Rwandans.

Now, food is a critical tool and efforts by relief organisations to repatriate Rwanda, an initiative underscored by Baroness Chalker, Minister for Overseas Development. 'Britain firmly believes repatriation is the answer to the refugee crisis,' she said at a press conference.

The British government is also planning to ship food supplies to the Rwandan capital of Kigali to attract refugees.

A Senate sub-committee yesterday approved dollars 170m ( pounds 112m) to help pay for the deployment of US troops in Rwanda. President Bill Clinton earlier asked Congress for dollars 270m ( pounds 178m) for troop deployment and another dollars 50m for other aid. A White House official said the US will send troops into Rwanda to operate a refugee relief supply hub in Kigali.

The French army began winding down 'Operation Turquoise'. A total of 192 special-forces commandos left eastern Zaire yesterday and 247 Senegalese and 132 Chadian troops arrived.

They were the first troops to pull out since France set up a 'safe zone' in south-west Rwanda last month, defended by 2,500 soldiers.

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