Zairian town falls, imperiling thousands of helpless refugees Tutsi rebels, Rwanda allies take Goma, forcing U.N. to evacuate aid workers

November 03, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

GOMA, Zaire -- The town of Goma fell to Zairian rebels and Rwandan troops yesterday, leading the United Nations to evacuate its foreign staff and thus leaving hundreds of thousands of refugees in nearby camps with only a few days' supply of food and warfare raging all around them.

The evacuation of relief workers and the severing of food supply lines by the fighting is a disaster for the refugees of the Hutu ethnic group who have been living in camps around Goma for two years. The rebels are members of the Tutsi group, which controls the Rwandan army that the refugees fled into Zaire to escape.

People in Goma said the Zairian army retreated from the town about 7 a.m., after battling a rebel force for most of the previous day and early yesterday morning.

Throughout the morning, rebel soldiers and Rwandan troops fought street battles with the few Zairian troops and police officers who had not fled or who were trapped in the town. Most of the streets were deserted and quiet. But every few minutes there were bursts of machine-gun fire and grenade blasts.

As the army withdrew, local Zairians looted the stores along the main streets, taking everything from bicycle tires to refrigerators to crates of beer.

No one was sure who was in charge of the town. The border post was abandoned. A few people straggled down the street toward Rwanda with suitcases. Anarchy reigned. The looters threw Zairian bills, which are nearly valueless, into the street like confetti.

"I don't know who is in control," said Leonard Kiza, 41, a gardener. "It might be the rebels. There was much fighting here. The Zairian soldiers left here around 7 a.m., going west, toward Sake."

The rebellion in Kivu province started Oct. 13, when Zairian Tutsi took up arms against the government, resisting a move to expel them from the country.

In recent days, Tutsi rebels from the Masisi region have been bearing down on Goma. They have apparently been joined by other ethnic groups like the Hunde and Nande, who also dislike the local government.

Rwanda denies involvement

Zaire has accused Rwanda of being behind the revolt and of fighting alongside the guerrilla groups. Rwanda has steadfastly denied the accusations. But it was clear yesterday that Rwandan artillery and gunboats had helped the rebel advance.

At 10: 30 a.m., more than 130 U.N. employees and aid workers crossed the border from Zaire into Rwanda in a convoy of more than 40 white four-wheel-drive cars.

They had been pinned down in two houses owned by the United Nations since noon Friday, while heavy artillery pounded Goma from guns in Rwanda and Tutsi guerrillas traded fire with Zaire's troops.

Rifle rounds hammered the outside of the United Nations houses, and aid workers hunkered down in basements and hallways, passing an uncomfortable and terrifying night.

Michele Quintaglie of the World Food Program said: "We could hear the gunshots hitting the house. You're looking at a situation where you are just caught in the cross fire. You don't know what's happening."

"It was just too dangerous," said Panos Moumtzis, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency. "It was a complete breakdown of law and order."

The evacuation is a disaster for the Hutu refugees who have been living in five camps around Goma since 1994, when they flooded across the border from Rwanda to escape an advancing Tutsi-led army.

Among the refugees are at least 40,000 former Rwandan soldiers and tens of thousands of militiamen who took part in mass killings of Tutsi civilians in 1994. Some camps quickly became havens for Hutu guerrilla groups who have been raiding Rwanda and Burundi, sowing terror with massacres.

500,000 refugees

But the Zairian Tutsi rebel advances in the last two weeks have pushed more than a half-million refugees out of camps along Zaire's borders with Rwanda and Burundi.

The vast majority of those people are fleeing westward to Mugunga, a camp about 10 miles from Goma that houses most of the former Rwandan government's soldiers. The Zairian troops are also falling back on Mugunga, aid officials said.

Because the fighting has cut all of the supply lines to Goma, there is only about a week's worth of food left in Mugunga camp, said Quintaglie of the World Food Program. Local employees of aid organizations were distributing that food as fast as possible yesterday afternoon.

"Everything we have there is being distributed, to prevent looting," said Frank Cawkwell, the former food coordinator for Mugunga. "The goal is to give the food out before the rich and the strong take it."

The Mugunga camp, which now has about 400,000 people and is receiving more every hour, is blessed with fresh water from Lake Kivu. But it sits on a volcanic plain where it is difficult to build latrines, raising the specter of epidemics of dysentery and cholera. One aid official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "They are going to be in terrible shape. A significant number of people are going to die if there is no access for aid agencies."

Diplomats and aid officials say it is clear that the rebellion serves the interests of the Tutsi-led governments in Rwanda and Burundi, which have been complaining for two years about the Zairian government's tolerance of Hutu guerrillas.

Moral dilemma

The chaos around Goma raises questions about the U.N. mission to protect refugees, diplomats say. The camps, which cost more than $300 million a year to operate, have destabilized the region and plunged it into war. They also presented a moral dilemma for aid workers: How can you feed and house thousands of people who perpetrated mass killings?

But U.N. officials have argued that they could not allow the innocent people in the camps to die. It has proven impossible to separate the army and militiamen from other refugees.

The camp leaders have in effect used the refugees as hostages, intimidating them from returning to Rwanda.

Pub Date: 11/03/96

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