New nightmare confronts Rwandans

November 16, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

GOMA, Zaire -- Nearly four months after the world watched as an estimated 50,000 Rwandan refugees collapsed and died in miserable camps here, frustrated United Nations officials and relief workers say the largest, fastest international relief effort in history has become a new kind of nightmare.

Life for the tens of thousands of refugees who remain here has acquired other awful dimensions, including the widespread theft of donated food and other relief goods; death threats against U.N. field officers and aid workers; and daily political assassinations and other murders in the three largest camps.

The scene is less ghastly than it was.

Purple wildflowers and weeds now shroud the unmarked mass graves.

The once-grisly dump trucks carry mounds of garbage, not corpses. Fresh water gushes from countless taps, and the rain-washed air is clean and clear.

Ambulances rush the sick to some of Africa's best-equipped hospitals, where they are treated by experts from around the world.

And at last count, 976 rickety bars and brothels, plus hundreds of shops and restaurants -- not to mention a tiny thatch hotel named Amizero, or Hope -- do a brisk trade in the giant refugee camps. There is even a volleyball court.

But humanitarian groups openly acknowledge that the distribution of relief supplies to the estimated 750,000 Hutu refugees has come under the direct control of former Hutu government leaders and militias.

They are the same extremists accused of systematically slaughtering at least a half-million civilians of the Tutsi minority ethnic group in Rwanda before they fled here in July.

"The militias and the military totally control the camps," said Samantha Bolton, spokeswoman for Doctors Without Borders, one of the most active of the 85 aid groups here. "They control all aspects of camp life. And the refugees are prisoners, hostages.

"It's outrageous," she said. "It's gotten to the point where we're aiding and abetting the perpetrators of genocide."

The ethical questions and misgivings have grown so severe that 16 international aid groups have publicly threatened to withdraw assistance from the refugee camps unless security is assured and the former Rwandan authorities and their henchmen are removed.

(Indeed, Ms. Bolton's group announced Monday it was halting operations in camps near the Zairian town of Bukavu.)

In a Nov. 3 statement, the groups warned that "current relief operations are untenable" and working conditions are "unacceptably dangerous."

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which coordinates the relief effort, separately "expressed grave concern" about "the threatening presence and activities of former Rwandan army, militia and civilian leaders in the camps."

'Becoming impossible'

"It's becoming impossible to conduct the operation successfully," agreed Penelope Lewis, spokeswoman for the United Nation's World Food Programme, which provides most of the food for the refugees.

In response, U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said that he will ask the Security Council to send peacekeeping troops to eastern Zaire to provide security.

But U.N. officials here say privately that they don't expect such help soon, if at all.

Several relief groups already have pulled out, or sharply curtailed their aid. CARE Canada, for example, evacuated all staff and officially withdrew on Oct. 30 from the largest camp, Katale, after receiving two anonymous letters that threatened five staff members.

CARE had been in charge of food distribution, sanitation, social services, road building and camp management at Katale since the first refugees arrived. The camp now has about 230,000 residents.

At first, with cholera raging and thousands dying daily, relief agencies gave little thought to who controlled the camps.

But Jean Lapierre, CARE'S coordinator, said security quickly deteriorated as the emergency abated. And in late September, he said, fighting broke out between rival gangs.

Sinister security force

But that was short-lived as leaders of the Hutu government in exile quickly asserted control in the camp and created a sinister security force called La Jeunesse, or The Youth, to enforce their edicts. Working in groups of 20, the young toughs patrol the camp's 11 zones.

The new leaders demanded complete control of distribution of relief goods, even the blankets, plastic sheeting and other non-food items that were given to "vulnerables" -- the aged, pregnant women, children and the disabled. "The prefecture leaders came to us and said, 'We'll decide who will receive these from now on,' " one official said.

U.N. officials estimated that 30 percent to 50 percent of the refugees are not getting enough food or other assistance. The diversion of food has led to a dramatic increase in malnutrition in the camps.

Severe malnutrition

Nicola Dahrendorf, acting director of U.N. refugee agency here, said the number of children treated for severe malnutrition had doubled in the past six weeks.

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