Refugees ask if Rwanda will be safe

August 08, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

GOMA, Zaire -- Even as the stakes for hundreds of thousands of people are rising, even as crops are ripening and threatening to rot in the fields of Rwanda, the most important question for refugees cannot be answered.

Are they safe going home to Rwanda?

In the past three days, a swirl of fresh rumors has swept the refugee camps here: Ethnic Hutus are facing retaliatory attacks when they try to return home after their bitter civil war with the minority Tutsis.

The reports are isolated but gaining credibility. And they come as Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, inspected the minimal U.S. military assistance effort here yesterday and said the United States remains committed to avoiding any peacekeeping role in Rwanda. "The U.S. is not going to get involved," he said.

Until recently, the stories of retaliation were largely dismissed as a cruel manipulation of politicians and militias from the defeated government who want to keep control over more than 2 million Rwandans who have fled their homes for refugee camps here and in the southwestern corner of Rwanda, where their security is temporarily guaranteed by French troops.

But in the past few days, Western journalists have come to believe that there is more to the reports. Although their accounts are still second and third hand, refugees are increasingly being taken at their word when they say they know of a brother or an aunt who was attacked upon returning.

Yesterday, John Shattuck, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for human rights, offered this preliminary conclusion after a visit to Rwanda and Zaire: "There have been some isolated attacks, and we're very concerned about this."

Mr. Shattuck hastened to add that he has no solid evidence of renewed killing in Rwanda. And he said he had received a fresh pledge from Rwanda's new government that it condemns any reprisals against returnees.

But repatriation is the only lasting hope that officials can offer to 900,000 refugees encamped in squalor and disease here and the more than 1 million others who threaten to flee southwestern Rwanda if their shield of French troops leaves Aug. 22 as scheduled.

The victorious Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front has welcomed Hutu refugees home in hopes of bringing in the crops before the rainy season begins by early September. But it also said the sick should not be rushed out of the camps to spread disease in Rwanda, and it demands punishment for those responsible for the slaughter of Tutsis.

At meetings in the Rwandan capital of Kigali over the weekend, U.S. officials said they had received assurances that a U.N. tribunal would be given jurisdiction over any genocide investigation rather than leaving justice to the Tutsi leaders.

General Shalikashvili traveled to Kigali yesterday for talks with the Rwandan Patriotic Front. The general reviewed the troops here earlier in the day -- joining a parade of notable Americans that threatens to become as big as the military operation itself.

He flew in with Tipper Gore, the wife of Vice President Al Gore, and an entourage of escorts. Their arrival came on the heels of a visit by the thundering African American civil rights leader Al Sharpton and just before an advertised visit by singer Harry Belafonte.

About 1,500 U.S. troops are now engaged in the relief effort here, in Kigali and in Entebbe, Uganda. General Shalikashvili praised the soldiers and airmen but expressed new impatience for a U.S. withdrawal.

"I don't look at this as a long-term commitment," he said, adding that he hopes construction of U.S. water treatment facilities and other chores could be turned over to private contractors and "permit us to disengage fairly soon. . . . I see us here shorter rather than longer."

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