Mobutu `raising the stakes in search of aid'

Robert Block writes that domestic politics may be behind the Zairean campaign

While the international community may be outraged at the forced expulsion of thousands of Rwandan refugees from Zaire, Zaireans themselves are overjoyed by their government's decision to drive the dispossessed Hutus from their midst at gunpoint.

Exasperated by a year of environmental degradation, dramatic increases in food prices and a crime wave all blamed on the refugees, Zaireans have fully supported the move to repatriate the Rwandans by force if necessary.

"I can't wait to see the back of them. They have brought us so much trouble," one Zairean border guard was quoted as saying this week.

Civilians in Goma, the town around which most of the estimated 1 million Hutu refugees are living in dozens of sprawling camps, expressed similar feelings to reporters, such as: "Good riddance" and "Don't expect us to weep for these people."

The refugee situation has become a political issue in Zaire where the opposition, campaigning to oust the Prime Minister, Kengo wa Dondo, and to reinstate his rival, Etienne Tshisekedi, is saying that the refugee problem should never have arisen in the first place.

Many Zaireans also share their government's view that the Tutsi minority now running affairs in Rwanda and Burundi have to be taught that the estimated 2 million Hutu refugees living in Zaire and Tanzania cannot remain there forever.

Until now Zaire's President Mobutu Sese Seko has been considered pro- Rwandan Hutu and has given refuge to the main leaders of last year's genocide of as many as 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

The orchestrated killings of government opponents and ethnic Tutsis rekindled Rwanda's civil war between the extremist government and the Tutsi-dominated Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF). Fear of the victorious RPF and guilt for their role in the slaughter, forced hundreds of thousands of Hutus on to the road to flee Rwanda, mainly for Zaire.

Zaire has always said that international community must find a way to repatriate the refugees, but at the same time Mr Mobutu has allowed the remnants of the old army and the militias to rearm and to use Zairean territory for occasional attacks against Rwanda's new RPF-led government.

According to Amnesty International, shipments of weapons for the extremist Hutu militias responsible for most of the killing last year have been entering Zaire via Goma's airport.

What is President Mobutu up to? Is he really intent on kicking out all the 1 million Hutu refugees who fled to Zaire last year, along with Rwanda's former government army and the killers? Or have President Mobutu and Mr Kengo ordered a limited expulsion to shake up the Tutsi-dominated armies in Rwanda and Burundi and force more money out of the United Nations, its agencies and rich donors?

According to one senior UN diplomat in the region, President Mobutu is simply doing it for money. "He is raising the stakes, getting attention and demanding more resources. Then he will try to calm things down," the diplomat said.

In the meantime, aid workers have been told not to enter the Goma camps because of fears that the militias and extremist leaders might target them for revenge attacks. Some agencies have blamed the international community, specifically the UN, for failing to prevent the expulsions.

"The international community has constantly failed these people," John O'Shea, the director of the Irish aid agency Goal, said.

"The international community has abandoned one million refugees in the camps in Zaire and forgotten about them. Do we have to wait for another disaster before there is action?" asked Mr O'Shea, adding: "It is now time for the United Nations to stand up and be counted."

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