Vengeful Hutus prey on camp refugees

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The Independent Online
IN REFUGEE camps in and around Goma, forces of the former Hutu government are doing all they can to keep Rwandans in Zaire in a state of misery and despair. They move among the crowds, spreading stories about how the victorious Tutsi rebel forces in Rwanda are killing Hutu refugees who dare to return. Their aim is to stop people going home.

'Everybody who stayed behind in Rwanda has been massacred and their eyes have been taken out,' said a well-dressed man, who said he was 'a simple farmer' from south-western Rwanda.

Standing in the sprawling Mugunga refugee camp just outside Goma, near a bare patch of black volcanic rock that has been turned into a burial ground for dozens of cholera victims, the man who refused to give his name attacked journalists for asking people if they thought about going back to Rwanda.

'Why are you asking these questions? Why do you think everyone has fled here if they (the forces of the Rwandese Patriotic Front) are not going to kill them?' he said. The crowd which had gathered around him repeated the questions and nodded in agreement.

The repatriation of the Rwandan refugees in Zaire is now the main goal of the international relief effort, according to Peter Hanson, the head of the United Nations Department of Humanitarian Affairs, who visited refugee camps in eastern Zaire yesterday. By Mr Hanson's own admission the situation in Goma, where 1.2 million refugees live in a state of squalor, is out of control.

Cholera is a serious problem, but the mortality rate from the disease seems to be dropping. The humanitarian airlift to help deal with the crisis is now a 24-hour operation. Although there are signs that the massive relief effort is having a positive effect, the situation in Goma is still dire. 'Humanitarian assistance is not the solution. Repatriation is the ultimate goal', Mr Hanson told a press conference yesterday.

But the former Hutu government officials who fled to Zaire after the victory of the RPF last week do not want to let their base of support, and their main claim to power, leave the country. Hutu leaders have encouraged the massive exodus from Rwanda and are citing the presence of the refugees in Zaire as proof that the RPF cannot govern. They keep up a stream of propaganda, through officials and former members of the militias, to dissuade the spontaneous return of refugees.

The situation in Goma is so bad that many people disregard the warnings and decide to take their chances and go home, rather than live amid disease and death.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Goma, 1,000 Rwandans crossed the Zairean border yesterday to go home. Relief officials believe the real number of people who have decided to return to Rwanda over the past few days is many times that, but that the movement is not big enough to make a dent in the numbers of refugees who remain.

''Those people who are supposedly returning are not real. It is just a scenario. The RPF is dressing up like civilians to make it seem like people are going back,' the 'farmer' from Butari said.

After the man spoke his piece and left, a group of three young men approached journalists to ask if it was true that people were returning safely to Rwanda. 'That man works for the government,' a man from Ruhengeri said of the 'farmer'. 'We don't believe what he said but we don't have confidence in going back either.'

Apollonaire Habyarimana, a former accountant from Kigali, said that there are people in each refugee camp who have instructions from the former Hutu authorities to spread what he called a 'certain line.'

'They advise the people, most of whom are uneducated and don't argue with what they are told.'

UN officials want to counteract the propaganda and are planning to post UN troops in the Rwandan border town of Gisenyi, about a mile from Goma, to reassure refugees that it is safe to go home. Major-General Romeo Dellaire, the head of the UN forces in Rwanda, visited Gisenyi yesterday and promised to post troops on the border today. 'We must help the Rwandans in Rwanda,' he said.

Aid agencies are also preparing to open offices in Gisenyi and are discussing the possibility of establishing health care centres along the roads, to feed and care for those who return. Repatriation, however, is expected to be a slow process. The horrors of Goma may speed up the process, no matter what the Hutu leaders say.

Pointing at the pile of bodies in the Mugunga camp, the young man from Ruhengeri said: 'Look at that. It is better to die in your own country than to die like this.'

(Photograph omitted)