As Rwandan refugees head for home, camp turns into a ghost town Makeshift settlement in Zaire once held hundreds of thousands

November 18, 1996|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MUGUNGA CAMP, Zaire -- The tail end of the snake of refugees that is making its way into Rwanda from Zaire rests in this eerie ghost town, the world's largest refugee camp just four days ago and home to about half a million people.

Refugees line both sides of the road that extends from the camp into the Zairian city of Goma, but their numbers are slowing, after a three-day parade of determination engulfed the two-lane byway.

The 7-mile-wide camp is populated only by rats. They scurry amid the crevices in the waist-high walls the residents built out of lava rocks during their 2-year stay here. Those rock walls and the camp's emptiness make Mugunga feel like a ruin of an ancient civilization.

At the western end of the camp, near the town of Sake, are the remains of what must have been the last battle between Tutsi-lead rebel forces and former Rwandan soldiers allied with Hutu radicals thought to have been behind the massacre of 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis in 1994.

The Tutsi-led government that took over Rwanda after the 1994 massacre is thought to have aided the Zairian rebels, who now control a swath of Zaire along the western side of Lake Kivu.

Buses filled with documents of the ousted Rwandan army lie on the road amid the frames of looted cars and trucks. The papers make it clear that the former soldiers were planning to invade Rwanda from their base in refugee camps. The bodies of one soldier and two civilians are sprawled nearby.

Stark contrast

The modern equipment of the humanitarian organizations stands starkly among the remains of the refugees' makeshift homes.

On a hill overlooking the main part of the camp, huge aluminum water tanks bear the name Oxfam, a British aid organization.

In the middle of the camp, a large piece of equipment, probably used for processing grain, sits silent and abandoned, the logo of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on its side.

Nearby, a group of stragglers gathers in what was Mugunga's mosque, a large single-room structure made from the blue UNHCR tarpaulins. A curtain of blue tarpaulins separates the men's and women's sections. Flattened cardboard boxes that once held cans of cooking oil are spread on the floor for prayer mats.

Masumbuka Assumini, 32, was one of them. He said he had been walking in the woods for well over a week since leaving the Katale camp. He reached Mugunga on Friday.

Losses on the way

"I lost three of my four children during this walk," he said. "We were together and then we came to this place where volcanic gas was emerging from the ground. Many people were suffering. The gas made you tired."

He said it was night when his group stumbled upon the gas about two days out of Katale. He picked up his 3-year-old daughter and ran away from the fumes. But he does not know what happened to his wife and his other three children, aged from 4 months to 12 years. He said he could not find them the next morning and has not seen them since.

"I am just resting here for today to see if they come out of the bush," he said. "If not, I'll will keep going to Rwanda and see if I can find them there."

Outside the mosque, by the road, Adige Mugirwanake, 62, told a similar story of getting separated from most of her family as they fled.

Hoping for a ride

Nearby, her 85-year-old mother, Zubeda Nyirarubungo, sat in a heap with crutches on her lap, hoping to get a ride to Goma in a passing aid vehicle.

Late yesterday afternoon, the UNHCR sent 55 trucks into Zaire from Rwanda. They headed out along the road to Mugunga to pick up stragglers and take them to Rwanda.

What concerns UNHCR officials is that there might be many more refugees in the woods of these volcanic foothills than previously thought. When added to the estimated 300,000 to the south who have yet to start appearing in Rwanda from the Zairian town of Bukavu, and to the 120,000 in the Hutu militant retreat to the northwest, it means that as huge as this migration of people has been, it might represent less than half of the Rwandan refugees in Zaire.

Pub Date: 11/18/96

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