Goma - The UN High Commissioner for Refugees is to make an urgent visit to Zaire in the next few days to plead for a halt to mass expulsions of Rwandan refugees which threaten to cause another humanitarian disaster in the region.
Panic-stricken Hutus from Rwanda and Burundi fled into eastern Zaire's gorilla parks, forests and lush hills yesterday to escape government troops sent to expel them. The number of people expelled since Saturday soared to more than 11,000 yesterday, mostly forced on to buses and trucks at random amid reports of lootings and beatings. More than 80,000 others have abandoned camps established after last year's brutal Rwandan civil war.
"Entire families are just taking off, running into the woods and national parks," said an exhausted UN field official, as truckloads of refugees were dumped at Rwanda's northwestern border crossing with Zaire. Among those dumped from tucks were several Zaireans grabbed off the streets of Goma by their own troops by accident.
A shrivelled man of about 90 dragged across the 500-yard-wide no man's land a huge sack, which burst on the way. A single shoe, pieces of dirty rags and several pots littered the ground.
Many of the Hutu refugees took part in last year's genocide of some 1 million Tutsis in Rwanda and fear revenge attacks or arrest if they return to a country whose government is now dominated by former Tutsi rebels.
"This is a major humanitarian crisis. We're talking about large numbers," said Carrol Faubert, special envoy to Rwanda and Burundi for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. "Families are separated, kids attending school are forgotten in the camps and the parents and the rest of the families sent across."
Many refugees complained their makeshift huts in Mugunga camp, until Saturday home to 150,000, were looted by soldiers. UN officials said six Zairean soldiers were punished in Mugunga yesterday for looting.
The UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali yesterday asked the UN High Commissioner for Refugees - the most senior international refugee official - to travel to Zaire urgently to "seek an understanding with the government".
Sadako Ogata is expected to travel today or tomorrow. A UN spokesman, Fred Eckhardt, said that an exchange of letters between Mr Boutros-Ghali and the Zairean Prime Minister, Kengo Wa Dondo, indicated that "they are willing to co-operate and it is a matter of nailing down details".
Zaire has long been frustrated with the presence of the 1 million Hutu refugees who fled during last year's civil war, as well as 70,000 Burundians. Kinshasa says it is unable to cope with the refugees, who have placed an intolerable burden on a region whose inhabitants are little better off than the exiles. Kinshasa took matters into its own hands after the UN Security Council last Thursday decided to suspend its arms embargo against Rwanda.
Zaire's UN ambassador, Lukabu Khabouji N'zaji, told the council at the time that additional weapons for Rwanda would encourage an increased flow of refugees into Zaire. He warned that Zaire could not continue to house hundreds of thousands of refugees at the risk of its own safety and economy.