The unexpected exodus of hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees from Mugunga, until yesterday the only refugee camp remaining open in eastern Zaire, will make the job of the aid organisations and of the intervention force considerably easier. The refugees have themselves opened up a corridor along which to return home. It will now be possible to distribute large quantities of aid to the returnees inside Rwanda, away from the war zone.
However, the majority of the refugees (mostly Rwandan but also Burundian) and thousands of Zairean citizens remain hidden in the hills and forests of eastern Zaire. They are separated from help by the continuing conflict and by the inaccessibility of the terrain.
It is a month since fighting between the Zairean army and Tutsi rebels from eastern Zaire's Banyamulenge community forced the refugees to start fleeing their camps and civilians to leave their homes. More than a million uprooted people are estimated to have taken to the jungle in eastern Zaire. Little is known about their condition, but hunger, thirst and disease - including cholera - are undoubtedly taking their toll.
Initially launched to resist persecution by the Zairean authorities, the Banyamulenge campaign quickly gained a dynamic with much wider reaching regional implications. With the support of Rwanda's Tutsi-dominated army, the rebels routed the Zairean army. Burundi and Uganda also stood accused of involvement by the Zairean government.
Now that the Rwandan troops have withdrawn across their border, the Tutsi insurgents have been joined by fighters from other groups committed to toppling the regime of Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko.
Engaging the insurgents are Hutu, some indigenous but mostly Rwandan militants who have been based in the refugee camps established following the 1994 Rwanda genocide. The Rwandan Hutu refugees have been intimidated into staying so long in Zaire by the extremists.
As fighting continues, particularly around Goma, which has been in Tutsi rebel hands for more than two weeks, diplomatic efforts are concentrating on securing some form of ceasefire before the deployment of the multinational force.
The nations contributing to the force have no wish to engage in the fighting or to forcibly disarm the Rwandan Hutu militias. Yesterday's mass migration of refugees back to Rwanda was the first indication that the Interahamwe are beginning to lose their stranglehold over the exiled masses. As fighting closed in around Mugunga, the fleeing militias ordered the refugees to follow them into the Zairean bush. It seems almost none complied with the order.
Committed to regaining their homeland by force, the Interahamwe and exiled members of the former Rwandan army have for the past two years been a source of instability to Rwanda and the region. Until all the refugees return home and the Hutu extremists are disarmed, the threat of long-term unrest remains.
The bulk of refugees which has fled to the interior of Zaire seems to have become dispersed over a large area. The last food supplies they received before leaving the camps are believed to have run out a week ago. A humanitarian catastrophe is feared if food and medicines cannot be delivered soon.Reuse content