Restoring Rwanda to health

August 02, 1994

The safest place for refugees from Rwanda is back in their homes. Goma and other places they went have no shelter, food, water or sanitation for them. That said, returning refugees represent a threat to their compatriots who never fled, should they bring disease back with them.

Mercy lifts of medicine, water and water purification apparatus by the United States and other countries have already started to make a difference, at least in preventing present rates of disease from mounting. Despite initial glitches, the reopening of Kigali airport in Rwanda was a great feat with immediate benefits.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates the death toll from disease in exile at 20,000. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) which raises money in appeals to the public, puts it at 50,000. Whichever is right, malnutrition and disease already in place assure that more will die.

This comes on top of a toll within Rwanda from executions and fighting that is widely estimated at 500,000 victims, from a population that before the April 6 coup and slaughters was estimated at 8 million.

The refugees, mostly Hutu, understandably fear reprisals from the victorious Rwanda Patriotic Front. They need every assurance such reprisals will not occur. The new government installed by the RPF has made efforts to assure these people. It could do more, which would be to refrain from the hunt for up to 32,000 "war criminals" blamed for the mass executions, and leave that to the investigation commission established by the United Nations.

Fear of reprisals was spread by radio broadcasts fomenting panic, made by the discredited government that fled to the French protection zone in western Rwanda and even across the border to Zaire. The French troops, who have deterred further atrocities but also protected the tyrants, should make every effort to turn those broadcasts off.

In fact, no reprisals against Hutu civilians by RPF victors have been reliably reported. The terrified Hutu majority are nonetheless entitled to continuous and credible reassurance.

A chain of way stations with food, water, sanitation and medicine is needed to save the health of a population walking back to its homes.

The world does not have a lot of experience with precisely the problems in public health posed by this exodus. Some satisfaction can be taken at the apparent successes of efforts to do the right thing.

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