Refugees abandon camps to rats

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The Independent Online
Mugunga has spilled forth its people and lies spent, silent and in ruins. The only sound is the rustling of rats claiming territory, as vultures circle.

They are not obvious at first. But within this deserted 20-square-kilometre camp - one of the largest refugee settlements in the world - perhaps 100 of the 500,000 people who lived here are left behind.

They are the weakest and they gaze with empty eyes; a crippled old man who chews hungrily on biscuits that are offered and a sick baby, abandoned to die by the side of the road, his face covered in flies.

They may live if help comes in time but that is not certain. Only a few aid organisations are being allowed by Rwandan-backed Zairean rebels to cross into Zaire and their movements are restricted. Zaire and Rwanda, both anxious that new camps are not established during this mass exodus from eastern Zaire, insist that aid efforts are concentrated on the Rwandan side of the border - the wrong side for the weakest in Mugunga.

"It is extraordinary," a frustrated Wendy Driscoll, of the charity Care, said. "The aid organisations are being allowed less access than journalists. The governments want aid concentrated in Rwanda but that should not mean leaving people to die by the roadside."

There are other signs that it is the strongest - and even the brutal - who survive. Beyond Mugunga, on the road to Saki, lies a row of abandoned cars, believed to belong to retreating members of the Interahamwe, the Hutu militia, who brought 2 million Rwandan Hutus into exile into Zaire in 1994 after engineering and overseeing the genocide of 800,000 Tutsis.

The ground by the cars is carpeted with a strange confetti, identity cards torn into tiny pieces. It is the same on the Zairean side of the small border crossing from Goma into Gisenyi. It was believed that the 70,000-strong Interahamwe could never return to Rwanda. But fleeing the rebel forces, it appears some guilty of genocide have been forced to take their chances back home. They seem to be attempting to discard their identities and melt into the crowd. The spontaneous return of Hutus in such great numbers - it is now estimated that 700,000 refugees will eventually travel this road home - opens up unexpected opportunities for militiamen.

The mass return caught aid agencies off guard and notions of orderly, gradual repatriation or registration have been abandoned because of the sheer force of numbers.

Nothing seems to stand in the way of the collective will. In the endless stream of people a tiny boy with just one shoe stands screaming. Like hundreds of others he is being carried along in the crowd and separated from his mother. No one stops. No one seems to notice. He is eventually rescued by an aid worker.

For some refugees former homes lie just across the border. For others another long hard trek lies ahead. Anyone old enough to walk carries almost impossibly huge loads. Five-year-olds with the stoicism of adults carry siblings on their backs, for miles.

The road is clouded by smoke from a thousand campfires as exhausted refugees take a break. At nightfall these Hutus lie side by side, covered by UN plastic sheeting, turning miles of roadside blue.

A handful of children have died of dehydration and exhaustion since the great return began on Friday but most are remarkably healthy given last week's dire predictions about conditions in Mugunga.

Damien Personnaz, of Unicef, said that while the condition of the first refugees to come through Goma was good, the health of those who followed was worse. Many were Zaireans seeking refuge from the conflict and Rwandan refugees from broken camps further north.

"Those arriving now have travelled further," he said. "And they did not come directly from Mugunga where at least there was food and water."

Last night, there were conflicting reports about cholera. One of Goma's three hospitals reported 70 suspected cases but Mr Personnaz said there were no confirmed cases and no signs of an epidemic.

Aid will be desperately needed to resettle the refugees and help Rwanda heal bitter divisions following the genocide. Is an international military force really still what is needed in this dramatically altered situation? "That's a very good question," Mr Personnaz said.