Returning Rwandan refugees strain aid agencies Hungry masses bypass way stations for homes

revised relief plan needed

November 19, 1996|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KIGALI, Rwanda -- The crush of refugees returning home to Rwanda from neighboring Zaire practically overwhelmed relief agencies here yesterday.

Half a million refugees staggered on foot across Rwanda toward the homes they fled two years earlier, some of them passing by relief camps established to give them food and transportation.

The Rwandan government showed signs of resentment over the appearance that the relief agencies and not their own authorities were managing the crisis. At the same time, the resolve of Western countries to send a multinational relief force to Zaire and Rwanda seemed to diminish even more as refugees left Zaire.

From about 20 to 50 miles from Gisenyi, the main crossing point from Zaire into Rwanda, the flow was so heavy yesterday that the road was impassable to vehicles -- including those carrying food and other supplies.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had elaborate plans for refugees to walk to transit points where a fleet of trucks and buses would take them to their homes.

When UNHCR first tried to open the transit center over the weekend, most refugees just walked by, preferring to keep moving toward home instead of lining up for registration and eventual transportation. Now the center is being used to reunite lost children with their parents.

The aid group Doctors Without Borders is setting up medical stations every six miles along the route. Its staff reports dysentery and dehydration are the biggest problems though there are still fears of an outbreak of cholera, the disease that killed 40,000 refugees when they fled Rwanda for Zaire two years ago.

The road itself is cloaked in a blanket of smoke from the multitude of cooking fires lighted by refugees who often carry precious firewood on their heads with the rest of their possessions.

The main stream of the refugees flows into smaller branches at virtually every crossroads, even those that are only small paths, as people turn off to head for their homes.

Hundreds of people turn right about 25 miles outside of Gisenyi, heading south on a main road, uphill as the it climbs through an alpine-like setting, cultivated in terraced fields that march up the steep sides of the valley.

About 10 miles away at the office of the commune of Gichiye, Theogene Mudahakana, the mayor, says he is glad that the refugees are returning.

"The problem is that we have no food," he said, highlighting the aid agencies' foiled plan to distribute food at way stations rather than delivering it to communities.

Now the plan is to distribute the food at small rural districts. But that requires a tremendous amount of logistical planning -- determining how much food goes where -- as well as transportation.

"We have had a promise from the World Food Program, but we haven't gotten anything yet," Mudahakana said. "We have informed the people who are here to share everything they have with the refugees until we can get help."

There is evidence of a growing conflict between Rwandan government officials and the various aid agencies over who has control of the repatriation program.

A Red Cross spokesman said two men who identified themselves as from the Ministry of Rehabilitation ordered the Red Cross center at the Umbano camp in the border town of Gisenyi closed immediately, Reuters reported.

"They didn't give specific reasons, only that they wanted the camps around the borders moved," said Andrew Hall of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

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Mudahakana said he expects more than 20,000 people to return to his community, where 46,000 now live. It already has received a large influx of Tutsis since the 1994 genocide and war that triggered the exodus of over a million Hutus into neighboring countries.

It was members of the majority Hutu tribe that killed about 800,000 Tutsis before a Tutsi-led rebellion sweeping down from bases in Uganda took control of Rwanda. Some of those killers are inevitably among the returning refugees.

"We are teaching the people that it is not good to exact revenge," Mudahakana said. "In meetings between Tutsis and some of those involved in the killings, we tell people if they start killing those who killed, then this thing will just continue until all the people are finished.

"We tell them that it is the government and the courts that must decide. I don't think it will be a problem. We will all live together."

A mile or so away, in the village of Karago, Jean de Dieu Pohigintare was nearing the end of his two-week walk from Zaire to home. He registered himself, his wife and three children with village authorities and then headed down the road to the house he hadn't seen in two years.

His wife, Chantal Mukarugwiza, carried their 2-year-old daughter on her back as they left the road, heading up a muddy path that led to their house. It perched on the side of a hill with a grand view of the beautiful valley.

Children had chalked some graffiti on the outside walls, the front door had been stolen and someone had defecated in the entrance way. But the substantial brick dwelling with its corrugated metal roof was essentially intact, and unoccupied.

Pohigintare looked thoughtful but pleased. He noted that the house next door belonged to his mother. They were separated in the exodus from Zaire.

"She is very old, and I don't think she survived," he said matter-of-factly. "I am happy to be home. Now I think I will rest, then go find some friends and brothers and see if they can help me."

Pub Date: 11/19/96

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