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The latest crisis in Zaire’s refugee camps is not just a r

August 26, 1995

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) _ The latest crisis in Zaire’s refugee camps is not just a result of Zairian impatience with nearly 2 million uninvited guests.

It’s a consequence of the failure by the United Nations and Rwanda’s government to get the refugees to go home _ a problem that has festered for over a year and been exacerbated by growing fears and shrinking U.N. funds.

Zaire’s government began expelling the refugees Aug. 19 and only stopped Thursday after international outrage and appeals from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which opposes forced repatriations.

The halt of the expulsions, and the return to the camps of tens of thousands of refugees who hid in the hills to avoid repatriation, doesn’t end the crisis. Only 15,000 were forced out when the U.N. stepped in.

To avoid more expulsions, the U.N. must get its voluntary repatriation program off the ground. That requires convincing the frightened Hutus they’ll be safe in a Tutsi-led country still recovering from last year’s hideous ethnic massacres of at least 500,000 Tutsis blamed on the Hutus.

``There are those who worked for the government, and they aren’t prepared to go because they’re certain they will be killed or jailed,″ said John Nkironuye, one of 33,000 Hutu refugees living in the Kibumba camp on the Zaire-Rwanda border. ``We have heard of lists of people who were alleged to have been killers, and we are certain if they return they will not survive.″

Nkironuye himself worked for the former Hutu-led Rwandan government as a city official in Ruhengeri. Like most Kibumba residents, he refused the UNHCR’s offer of a ride home Friday.

The UNHCR first began repatriating volunteers in December, but the program was derailed in April after thousands were killed in Rwanda’s Kibeho camp, which housed Hutus displaced by last year’s war.

Soldiers of Rwanda’s Tutsi-led army, which took power after the fall of the Hutu government, fired on the Hutus when they resisted efforts to close the camp.

Hutus said the killings proved they weren’t safe from Tutsi reprisals, and the number returning to Rwanda dropped to such a trickle that the U.N. halted the repatriation effort.

It resumed Friday as part of the UNHCR’s deal to stop Zaire from expelling refugees. Only 220 people showed up. Just 47 came on Saturday, when many of the refugees were busy rebuilding the stick-and-stone shelters wrecked by Zairian soldiers during the expulsions.

Despite the sputtering start, UNHCR officials insist it is too early to call the effort a failure.

``We judge our repatriation progress on the basis of months rather than days,″ UNHCR spokesman Chris Bowers said Saturday. But he added: ``Even if we had 10,000 people today, it would take months to move all the people we have here.″

It may also take more money than the United Nations has. With the world’s attention diverted to other conflicts and sympathy wearing thin for Africa’s perpetual wars, contributions to the U.N. effort here are drying up.

The UNHCR had to cut its repatriation budget for the region by $28.5 million this year. By June it had received only 40 percent of anticipated donor funds.

The refugees who go home go to a country with virtually no justice system to protect them from unfair persecution. Human rights organizations and aid agencies say that’s the crucial factor in making repatriation a success.

``Unless and until it appears that the legal system will begin functioning effectively, an increase in false accusations, reprisal killings and general lawlessness is inevitable,″ Alison DesForges, of the watchdog group African Rights, said after the Kibeho killings.

The Rwandan government says it agrees, but it has no money to hire judges and lawyers or to rebuild prisons and courthouses wrecked in the war, and foreign aid is drying up.

The U.N. human rights mission in Rwanda, which was supposed to help bring perpetrators of the 1994 genocide to justice, has been accused of adding to the problem.

In a scathing report in April, African Rights said that the U.N. mission was blocking the effort by nitpicking over the rights of suspected killers and labeling many arrests ``arbitrary″ on the basis of little evidence.

In an attempt to relieve Hutu fears of mass arrests, the UNHCR said Friday only one in every 500 people returning to Rwanda since Aug. 19 had been detained by Rwandan authorities. Some were on lists of suspected war criminals, while others were listed as common criminals.

In Kibumba, a former Rwandan teacher, Jean-Baptiste Sibomana, said the only way to get people to return is for the U.N. to intervene and revive the Arusha accord, which called for power-sharing between the minority Tutsis and majority Hutus.

That agreement went down in flames in the April 1994 plane crash that killed Rwanda’s last Hutu president and sparked the massacres.

But given its newly won power, Rwanda’s Tutsi government would be unlikely to back a plan to reduce its strength. It would be less likely to invite intervention from the United Nations, which it feels is meddling in its affairs.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Tina Susman, the AP West Africa correspondent, has covered Africa since 1990.

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