Rwandan troops still on payroll: Robert Block in Goma sees defeated soldiers collecting their wages as part of a plan to keep the military intact in Zaire

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The Independent Online
ALTHOUGH defeated, living in exile in Zaire and supposedly disarmed, the Rwandan army is being kept together by the former Hutu extremist government amid tough talk of launching an offensive to retake Rwanda.

In a large military tent pitched on the side of the road near the Mugunga refugee camp, military paymasters were busy yesterday sorting through piles of computerised lists of active servicemen and counting huge wads of crisp new Rwandan franc banknotes. A queue of soldiers formed near by. Rwandan francs are still used as currency by the refugees and are also being converted into Zaire's currency by some money traders. In Goma's world of squalor, disease and death, money means food, clean water and life.

Wads of Rwandan money were also being distributed yesterday to refugees at the Kibumba camp by men in black Mercedes-Benzes. The former Hutu government has been doing everything possible to prevent the refugees from going home. It does not want to see its base of support and its main claim to power leaving. Crucial to this effort is keeping the military happy.

'This is our pay for June,' one officer shouted at a group of reporters as he counted money. 'No more questions. You can go ask your friend Kagame,' he added, referring to the military commander of the mainly-Tutsi Rwandese Patriotic Front (RFP), whose forces defeated the army two weeks ago and drove them into Zaire along with hundreds of thousands of refugees. Rwanda military officers blame the international press and the world community for failing to support them in their fight against the RPF.

But even in defeat, the Rwandan military is united. Thousands of soldiers live in their own refugee camps separate from the civilians. They spend their idle days swaggering through the streets among crowds of refugees. Some, although a relatively small number, are armed despite efforts by the Zairean authorities to collect all weapons.

Compared to the rest of the 1.2 miilion refugees in and around the Zairean border town of Goma, the soldiers look fit and healthy. All are in uniforms, which, considering the amount of dust and filth in the refugee camps, are surprisingly clean. Unlike the 16 civllian refugee camps around Goma, there are few bodies piled up near the army areas.

Yesterday's distribution of the soldiers' wages comes one day after reports that army leaders have been telling aid workers that they will not disband the military. An unnamed senior Rwandan military officer was reported to have told the United Nation's High Comissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Zairean authorities on Wednesday that the army was not going to be demobilised because it was preparing for a counter offensive to 'take back Rwanda'.

The UNHCR has refused to supply relief aid to the soldiers as long as they remained in their own camps with an intact military structure. 'These guys are still together as a fighting unit and we are not going to help them,' said one UNHCR official yesterday in Goma.

UN officials, diplomats and relief workers have expressed fear that the presence of the loyalist forces in Zaire could be a potential source of instability in the region. The US special envoy to Rwanda, Brian Atwood, described the presence of an intact Rwandan army as a 'time bomb'.

But French military sources who have been keeping an eye on the former government army, do not believe there is any danger of the Rwandan army striking out soon. Aid workers also agree.

'From what I've seen and heard, I don't think they represent any real threat for the moment. They've been defeated once and abandoned their equipment,' a relief worker in Goma said.

But if the refugees remain in Rwanda for a longer period of time that might change. Sources in the former Hutu government have said that they were not trying to buy weapons on the international market and expected to be able to launch an offensive within six months.

(Photograph omitted)