Jul. 23, 1994
U.N. Advises Refugees to Go Home With PM-US-Rwanda, PM-Rwanda-Aid, PM-Rwanda-World Aid, PM-Rwanda-Aid-List
GOMA, Zaire (AP) _ Faced with countless deaths from disease and the herculean task of delivering scarce food and water, U.N. officials began encouraging the more than 1 million Rwandan refugees camped in Zaire to save themselves by going home.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees ''would like it to be a replay of what happened in reverse, i.e. a million people packing it up and making a mad dash back across the border,'' agency spokesman Ray Wilkinson said.
About 2,000 refugees gathered at a border crossing today, hoping to return, said Rupert Colville, a UNHCR spokesman in Geneva. Zairian authorities refused to let them cross, saying the number of weapons and grenades in the area made it unsafe.
Three refugees were killed when a grenade exploded accidentally at the crossing today, Colville said.
The Zairians assured UNHCR they probably would reopen the border in a couple of days, said Wilkinson, the agency's spokesman in Goma.
But there was no sign a reverse-exodus was in the offing, despite assurances from the new government in Rwanda that returning refugees not wanted for war crimes would be safe.
Exhausted, hungry and sick with cholera, dysentery, malaria, and measles, refugees say they are in no state to go home and still fear reprisals. They clog the roads, raising dust and hampering aid deliveries.
Munigi has grown helter-skelter from a few thousand to more than 100,000 in days. The town, three miles from the Zairian border city of Goma, is one of four sites to which terrorized Rwandan refugees are being sent.
The stench of decomposing corpses, human excrement and acrid smoke from cooking fires fills the air. The sheer chaos of people living and dying on almost every open patch of earth complicated relief workers' task.
There is no water or sanitation, and the area is turning into a graveyard as cholera sweeps through. No one knows how many already have died in the epidemic, which broke out Wednesday. Many more are expected to perish.
''How can we count? There's someone dying here every minute,'' said Bernard Mpagazihe, a Zairian who has organied work details for the Irish agency GOAL. He turned away to tell the workers carrying bodies to trucks to hurry.
The refugees in Goma belong to Rwanda's Hutu majority, whose army and militias are blamed for massacring hundreds of thousands of minority Tutsis after Rwanda's president, a Hutu, died in a mysterious plane crash on April 6.
The Hutus fled advancing rebels of the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front in a human wave that has grown to 1.7 million in the past 10 days.
New Premier Faustin Twagiramungu, a moderate Hutu picked by the rebels to head Rwanda's new government, said Friday he wants food aid distributed on the Rwandan side of the border to encourage people to come back. He also wants aid workers, U.N. peacekeepers and foreign troops to make a presence in Rwanda.
''We are not going to go into retribution,'' he said. ''We don't have to kill because others have killed.''
The UNHCR decided to encourage the refugees to go home after its special envoy, Michel Moussalli, met with Rwanda's new president and vice president in Kigali on Thursday, Wilkinson said.
''We believe that the new government will be able to bring these people back in safety,'' he said.
Repatriation would go on only on a voluntary basis, he said, and as the decision had only just been made, officials had not yet discussed how they could help people too weak to walk to return home.
But as Wilkinson talked to reporters in Goma, an official from the defeated Rwandan government interrupted him, saying ''It isn't true'' that the new government would ensure Hutus safety.
''It's not possible to have a situation where you have a minority of 10 percent (the Tutsis) governing 90 percent of the people,'' said Jean de Dieu Habineza, former labor and social affairs minister.
Dozens of Rwandan soldiers among the refugees were seen Friday heading to a camp where soldiers have been regrouping and are threatening to launch a war against the new government.
A group of militant young male refugees in Goma said they would join the combat rather than be led by Tutsis.
''They say we are all criminals and killers,'' said Ladislas Seyoboka, who used to pump gas in Kigali. ''They will kill us for sure if we go back now.''
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali called for a political rapprochement between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda. ''The circle of suspicion and ethnic hate must be broken,'' he said.
Meanwhile, the relief effort grew despite a host of logistial problems.
Zairian authorities were blocking aid flights so commercial flights could continue using the airport, said Fernando del Mundo, UNHCR spokesman in Geneva.
Only eight of the 15 flights arriving in Goma each day are set aside for humanitarian relief, and three of those are for food, U.N. officials said.
''It's criminal to prevent these planes from coming in when you have a lot of people dying out there,'' del Mundo said. ''You have a full-blown disaster on your hands and of course every minute counts.''
Plans to bring in food trucks from Nairobi, Kenya, were canceled because a stretch of road from Gisenyi, Rwanda, to Goma was mined by retreating soldiers of the defeated Rwandan army, said Douglas Coutts of the World Food Program.
President Clinton ordered a round-the-clock military airlift of supplies and medicine to confront hunger and disease.
A group of U.S. military officers arrived in Goma to discuss plans to rebuild air and road facilities so aid can be delivered quicker.
U.S. military water-purification equipment, essential to stop the spread of waterborne cholera bacteria, was being prepared in Germany.
Other nations also pledged aid and supplies after Boutros-Ghali appealed for $434 million in humanitarian relief.
The UNHCR said it needs help building 60,000 latrines and tankers and crews for clean water to try to get the cholera epidemic under control.
France said some of its troops now in Rwanda would stay on in neighboring countries to help with aid efforts. The troops were deployed in June and are scheduled to be withdrawn Aug. 21.