Hunger stalks forgotten Rwanda refugee camps

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The Independent Online

Unrest is mounting amongrefugees living in sprawling, squalid camps on the Rwanda-Zaire border. As shortages of food worsen, refugees have become unwilling to listen to the explanations of aid workers.

Scuffles have broken out at the food distribution centres and ration allocations have been disrupted. Representatives of the International ederation of the Red Cross, which organises distribution, say camp leaders intimidate refugees prepared to take the reduced rations.

Despite the aid effort launched last year in response to the massive flight of Hutu refugees from Rwanda, conditions in the camps remain poor. At Kibumba, outside Goma, in eastern Zaire, tens of thousands of families live in huts covered with plastic sheeting. Camping in the shadow of volatile volcanoes, they are prey to the elements as well as to diarrhoea and malaria.

"We want to go home but it's too dangerous at the moment", Alphonse Butsingili, elected head of 200,000 refugees in Kibumba, said. "Maybe we'll die of hunger here if the food aid stops but we won't go back until it's safe".

Two United Nations agencies warn that food shortages may destabilise the camps, home to about three million refugees in Zaire, Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda. The World ood Programme (WP) and the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) say the international community must provide an immediate cash injection if a catastrophe is to be averted.

"There is a food shortage because donor countries are not making the funds available for the purchase of commodities", Pierre Saillez, of WP in eastern Zaire, said. "There's now a serious interruption in our food pipeline and there could be starvation in the camps if the money does not come through". WP says that while $385m (£243m) is needed for the 1995 Rwandan refugee programme, only $155m has been pledged. It is costing more than $1m a day to feed the 2.2 million Rwandans living outside their country.

The refugees fled Rwanda last summer, ahead of the victorious advance of the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic ront. Among those who crossed into neighbouring countries were killers, responsible for exterminating half a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. While most refugees played no part in massacres, most fear Rwandan justice would not distinguish between guilty and innocent.The camps are not far from Rwanda - some in eastern Zaire are a few hundred yards from the border. But few refugees are going home.

"Some refugees think food is being used as a political tool to force them back to Rwanda," Lasse Norgaard, of the Red Cross ederation, said. "They're not the most popular group of refugees in the world right now. It's possible some governments are withholding donations to make a statement about the refugee problem. But these people are not staying in the camps for the food. They're here because they're afraid what will happen to them if they go home".

The situation is most critical in Zaire's Goma region, which holds the highest concentration of refugees in the world, with nearly three-quarters of a million Rwandans living in seven camps and in the town of Goma.

Recently, refugees in many camps in eastern Zaire and Burundi have received only halftheir usual ration of beans, cereals, salt and oil. The Red Cross believes that if the shortages continue, malnutrition will appear among children next month. The Red Cross is relying on emergency stocks to keep supplies flowing.

The shortages in Goma are exacerbated by the difficulty of bringing aid to this remote region and by the reluctance of the Rwandan government to assist the passage of relief convoys. Because of the delays on the route through Rwanda, WP has had to divert its trucks through Uganda.