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World’s Biggest Refugee Camp Born in Eastern Zaire

October 29, 1996

MUGUNGA, Zaire (AP) _ The biggest refugee camp in the world took shape Monday, expanding in a sprawling confetti of green, red and blue tents, covering four square miles of a rough slab of volcanic rock in eastern Zaire.

The population of the Mugunga camp swelled to twice its size when nearly 200,000 Rwandan Hutus arrived here from their old camp, after it was attacked Saturday by Rwandan army soldiers of the Tutsi ethnic group.

Looking out over the blue of Lake Kivu, the camp is like a small city, its 420,000 population more than that of Minneapolis. Its residents are tired, hungry and potentially violent. And already-taxed humanitarian workers are worried _ about security, about having enough to feed the hungry, and about preventing disease.

After two years as refugees, the newcomers quickly set about rebuilding their lives. Smoke hung over the camp Monday as Hutus lit fires to cook maize and wearily unpacked their bundles of ragged clothes. Children hid from the harsh sun under umbrellas while their parents built shelters from tarps and tree trunks.

Aid workers hurried to organize sanitation and food, hoping to prevent an outbreak of cholera like the one that killed 50,000 Rwandans in eastern Zaire in 1994. The terrain of hardened lava made it difficult to build badly needed latrines.

``In this situation, there is always a risk of an epidemic, especially of diarrhea or cholera,″ said Dr. Cathy Lyons of the Dutch Doctors Without Borders.

Adding to the urgency of the humanitarian work is the enormous concentration of refugees, more than 420,000 in two adjoining camps that have merged into one, said Lino Bordin, head of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees office in Goma.

``It is the biggest refugee camp in the world,″ he said.

With so many frustrated, hungry, scared people in one place, Bordin said, the greatest concern is for security, first for the refugees, then for the local population. ``The atmosphere is potentially explosive,″ he said.

At the United Nations, in New York, spokesman Sylvana Foa confirmed that the Mugunga camp was now the world’s biggest, although she estimated its population at about 350,000. She said that the second-biggest camp is in eastern Zaire in Katale, with 202,000 people.

The attack this weekend on the refugee camp in Kibumba was one of the worst in eastern Zaire since 1994, when the former Hutu-extremist government in Rwanda launched a genocide that killed at least 500,000 people, mostly Tutsis. Rwandan Hutus and their army, badly beaten by Tutsi rebels, fled to Zaire and Tanzania.

The Kibumba camp is empty now. Only a few elderly, ill and handicapped refugees still on the move, walking slowly along the rough road of soot that winds around a volcano to Mugunga. Along the road are banana plantations razed by the Zairian army to give it a clear view of the approaching Rwandan enemy.

With Kibumba closed, the Mugunga camp _ about 10 miles to the west _ is now the closest to the Rwandan border.

The population explosion has hit Zairians hard, said Mashako Mamba Sebi, mayor of the regional capital Goma, nine miles away from the expanding camp. ``They’ve brought diseases, ruined the economy, destroyed the environment,″ he said of the refugees.

The UNHCR has provided buses to take the refugees home. But the buses stood nearly empty Monday at Mugunga, evidence that the refugees will not be leaving soon. Most of them have refused to return to Rwanda, fearing Tutsis reprisals from the massacre two years ago.

Still, Anastase Ninwose, one of 10 people aboard a bus, said the attack on Kibumba convinced him ``I’m safer at home than in a camp.″

Sporadic fighting was reported Monday, but the front line had not advanced from 14 miles north of Goma, said Panos Moumtzis, UNHCR spokesman. He cautioned that the quiet was just a lull before another attack: ``We wonder what are the tactics, what will happen next.″

The Zairian government has blamed Rwandan forces for the fighting, a charge Rwandan officials deny.

``The world community must put pressure on whoever is doing the fighting to stop, and put an end to the misery of hundreds of thousands of people,″ Moumtzis said.

Goma’s airport closed briefly Sunday and Monday while Zairian army reinforcements arrived. A source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said 350 Zairian Green Berets have arrived, part of the elite Presidential Guard.

At Goma’s hospital, 28 people were recovering from the attack on Kibumba _ one wounded by a grenade, the others by bullets.

Many of the wounded were young Hutu men, probably former Rwandan government soldiers, wounded defending their camp. Dr. Claudio Ceravolo said they arrived bleeding and wearing the tattered uniforms of the Hutu army that was driven into exile by Tutsi rebels in 1994.

``One was wearing a military shirt, another military pants, another boots,″ Ceravolo said.

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