Rwandan refugees find little relief in Tanzania

May 02, 1994|By New York Times News Service

NGARA, Tanzania -- Barely two days after a harrowing and exhausting escape from Rwanda, the more than a quarter-million refugees who arrived here were soaked by heavy rains, adding to the miseries of their makeshift lives with little shelter or food.

Some had umbrellas to hide under, and a few strung out plastic tarpaulins or thatched together grass huts. But in this wide-open land, most just weathered the downpours with nothing.

Barefoot children squatted on the roadside, shivering in oversized torn sweaters. Families huddled together for warmth, matting down the elephant grass. The rain washed out most of the campfires many had built to cook their meager supplies of food.

At the newly created health center, there were no doctors, just one medical assistant to deal with a long line of people suffering from malaria, tuberculosis and pneumonia. One woman came in with an old bullet wound; a man had a suppurating machete gash to his shoulder. In a side room, a woman was giving birth.

In this new home to the refugees, a lush green plain about 20 miles from the border, there were also the first attempts at organization. Tanzanian Red Cross and United Nations officials began to try to settle the Rwandans according to their communities of origin as part of an effort to organize food distribution that is to begin today.

There was an uninterrupted flow of people: women with mattresses on their heads and babies tied to their backs, children lugging firewood and jerrycans full of water, men tugging along goats and sheep.

Some started small businesses in the grass, selling porridge by the cupful from large boiling pots. But few could afford it.

In one of the largest and fastest refugee exoduses, more than 250,000 Rwandans fled across the border in a 25-hour period that began Thursday afternoon and ended when rebels resealed the border. Most of the refugees belong to the majority Hutu ethnic group and came from southeastern Rwanda.

The tiny central African country fell into civil war and anarchy on April 6 when President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was killed along with President Cyprien Ntaryamina of Burundi in a plane explosion near the Rwandan capital, Kigali.

Mr. Habyarimana's death, on the eve of the carrying out of a peace accord between the Hutu-dominated government and the minority Tutsis, touched off widespread massacres against the Tutsis by Hutu hard-liners in the military and militias.

The refugee exodus here is unlike that from other parts of Rwanda, where those who have managed to cross into other neighboring countries are mostly Tutsis, bringing tales of bloodshed and their own severe machete wounds.

Most of the refugees here are not wounded and said they were fleeing the advance of soldiers of the Tutsi-led Rwanda Patriotic Front. Most seem to have fled in a huge wave of panic and fear of retribution.

"We fled the RPF," said Ramu Munyurabihizi, 27, who had been walking for four days. "They are killing people. We hardly saw any Rwandan military on the road. They all left before us. I had to leave everything behind. I do not know where my family is. All my commune left. We were about 30,000 people."

The U.N. refugees commission had been preparing last week for an influx of only 50,000 refugees. Now it desperately needs clean water and will have to build up to 10,000 latrines.

"If we lose control of sanitation [and] we lose control of water, we lose control of everything," said Maureen Connolly, the team leader in Ngara for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "Everybody is all over the place. People are too close together for the moment. This poses a health risk."

When the influx began Thursday afternoon, Tanzanian officials let the refugees in the country without any problem, only disarming them of hundreds of machetes and hoes.

Saturday, the machetes littered the ground in front of the border posts. Customs officials have promised to provide U.N. aid workers with the machetes and hoes to help them build the latrines.

Saturday night, aside from several rebel soldiers manning a guard post across the border, the closest town in Rwanda seemed completely deserted. Corpses floated down the Kagera River separating the two countries.

From a plane flying low over the nearby lush Rwandan hills, the villages looked completely empty, without a sign of humans or animals.

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