Mayhem as Rwandans stampede to Zaire

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The Independent Online
AT least 30 people died in a stampede of terrified Rwandan refugees on the Zaire border yesterday, while others are thought to have been killed when two mortars landed in the crowd.

The refugees said units of the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) fired directly at them as they crossed the border. A French photographer saw a pile of about 30 bodies, mainly of children, who had been crushed in the desperate rush and panic. Gunfire and mortar rounds echoed and exploded through the choking dust in the air for two hours in the afternoon. Children ran screaming in terror, tears pouring down their cheeks. Women desperately cried out the names of the children they had lost in the pandemonium.

Three mortar rounds were fired at Goma airport, where the French forces have their base and where planes carrying relief supplies are landing. The mortars missed the airport, but apparently landed in a nearby residential area. Five people are thought to have been killed and several wounded. The French forces said they did not know who was responsible for the attack.

Panic has spread among the refugees and local people, and there was shooting in Goma during the afternoon and evening. A French soldier was injured in a shooting incident and is being operated on at the French base. Zairean soldiers mugged several foreigners at gunpoint, and are stripping the refugees of all their belongings.

In the afternoon, it was impossible to reach the border in the crush. The refugees said that many of them had been killed in the shooting and shelling. Rwandan soldiers fled with the civilians, many dropping their weapons on the way. About 30 yards from the border, rifles lay heaped in the dust. Live grenades were lodged in rubble and rocks, where people were stumbling about.

Two bodies, a small boy and an elderly man, who had died earlier, maybe from disease or exhaustion, lay on waste ground, gradually being submerged in black dust. A pair of crutches lay abandoned, and a skinny, malnourished child whimpered as he sat alone by a dying fire. As the shelling continued, there appeared to be exchanges of fire, but it was impossible to tell if it was the Zairean army or Rwandan troops who were responding.

The new exodus of refugees began on Saturday night, as the RPF approached Gisenyi, the base of the rump Rwandan government. By mid-morning the throng was impenetrable. 'In the last 24 hours 300,000 people have crossed the border,' said Panos Moumtzis, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

'There's a solid stream of people coming out of Rwanda which has no end,' he added.

UNHCR says there is a river of refugees 16 miles long, stretching either side of the border. They estimate that up to a million refugees have now reached Goma, making this the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.

Dozens of Rwandan army trucks, some carrying heavy artillery, crossed the border in the morning. Rwandan soldiers lounged on top of the trucks drinking beer from the bottles. Many were fully armed with rifles, grenades and knives.

By a wall, a few yards from the border, a fragile baby lay sleeping in a bundle of ragged blankets. Its mother said she had given birth, right there, on Saturday afternoon. She sat in despair - she had been separated from her husband and other three children, and she did not know how to find them.

A little girl of 10 who said her name was Zuba wept and clung to the hand of a young man. He said he did not know who the child was, and had found her wandering lost in the crush, not knowing where were her parents or other members of her family. He said he would look after her until she could find someone else. A man wandered hopelessly in the crowd with a piece of paper mounted on a stick. It gave his name and said: 'Reward of 500 Rwandan francs offered for anyone who finds my eight-year-old son, Gashore.'

The town of Goma is choked with refugees, some terrified, others armed and angry. The Zairean authorities cannot control them, as their armed forces are unpaid and ill-disciplined. Relief workers say 10 plane-loads of food and supplies were flown in yesterday. But the humanitarian effort cannot keep pace with the influx, nor address the panic and violence.

(Photograph omitted)