Killer gangs in Goma camps could halt food aid for 1m

AID WORKERS in Rwandan refugee camps in Zaire are afraid that gangs of killers who control the camps could hold nearly a million people to ransom by stopping relief aid reaching the refugees, if their power is threatened.

On Friday, more than 80 aid workers were withdrawn from Katale camp north of Goma in Zaire after a gang beat a Zairean UN employee to death and threatened seven Western aid workers in the camp. Barricades were set up in other camps, and one report said that a death list had been found that contained the names of aid workers.

Yesterday a delegation of Zairean and UN officials and aid workers drove to Katale to negotiate with the camp leaders, to try to persuade them to stop molesting aid workers and allow food aid and water to resume. They fear that if this spreads to other camps and relief supplies are not delivered, nearly a million people will be held to ransom.

The camps, which house 850,000 Rwandan refugees who fled in July, depend on daily deliveries of food and water, and health programmes run by aid agencies in the camp. Katale houses about 270,000. The camps are organised in villages, as they were in Rwanda, and run by the same officials and mayors. In many cases, it was these people who organised the Interahamwe gangs that carried out the massacres of their political opponents and Tutsi people earlier this year.

Many have guns, and because they have power they have food and money. They are quite capable of stopping food and water deliveries to the camps if their power is threatened. The aid agencies accept that they have to deal with these people if any semblance of order is to be maintained in the camps, although the UN is committed to arresting and putting on trial those responsible for genocide. In the meantime, the camps are ruled by fear and paranoia, and killings have continued.

One of the fears is that the refugees will be forcibly returned, and many believe that they will be killed by the new government in Rwanda in revenge for the massacres. This fear has been exacerbated lately, as the original deadlines for the return of the refugees, set by the Zairean government, ran out this weekend.

There has also been UN talk of moving the soldiers of the old Rwandan army to another camp 30 miles away, but many of the refugees say they would not feel secure if the army was moved.

Even if it was decided to disarm and move the old Rwandan army, and to contain those responsible for massacres in the camps, it is hard to see who could do this. The UN has only 480 inexperienced Japanese troops in the area, on their first peace-keeping operation. They are only lightly armed and instructed to fire only in self-defence. They are not allowed to protect aid workers, and Tokyo has threatened to pull them out altogether if the region becomes insecure.

The UN High Commission for refugees has also appealed to Zaire to restore order in the camps and remove 'troublemakers', but Zairean officials say they do not have enough troops in the area to do so.