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Food Shortages Worsen, But Aid Groups Still Can’t Get to Rwanda With PM-Rwanda-Refugees, Bjt

June 8, 1994

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) _ The first reports of starvation are emerging from Rwanda, but most U.N. and private aid agencies have been unable, or unwilling, to extend a hand of help or hope.

Although an estimated 2 million people have been forced from their homes and fields in the central African farming country, few Western aid workers are there to shelter, feed and care for them.

The death toll from the burgeoning humanitarian crisis could eventually rival the ethnic butchering that has already killed about 200,000 people in the past two months.

″People can make do for a few days without food, but they can’t survive for weeks,″ said Samantha Bolton, spokeswoman with for Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders). ″If something is not done quickly, there will be a major disaster.″

Two months ago, when Rwanda began its slide into chaos and terror, most Western aid agencies evacuated their international employees.

Many told of having to stand by helplessly as Rwandan employees were cut down before their eyes by roving gangs armed with hand grenades, machetes, spears and clubs.

The victims were mostly Tutsis, Rwanda’s ethnic minority, or opponents of a government dominated by majority Hutus. The killing mobs were armed, trained and led by extremist Hutu politicians.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has remained in Rwanda despite the deaths of more than 30 of its own Rwandan workers and scores of its patients slaughtered at hospitals where they were being treated. Paris-based Medicins Sans Frontieres also is still working in the bloodied nation, often alongside Red Cross medical teams.

But given the terrifying ordeals their employees suffered in the early days of Rwanda’s crisis, most aid agencies are reluctant to re-enter the country until they are confident their people can work in some degree of safety.

Beyond the ethnic massacres of civilians by civilians, Rwanda is gripped by a civil war between the Hutu government and the advancing rebels of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, led by the minority Tutsis.

Food supplies are dwindling and security conditions are not improving. United Nations flights into the capital of Kigali were suspended Sunday after government forces shelled the airport when a U.N. plane touched down.

″Our biggest problem right now is just getting access,″ said Brenda Barton, a spokeswoman for the U.N.’s World Food Program in Nairobi.

The group has 6,000 tons of food at warehouses in Kigali and another 500 tons stored in southern Rwanda.

″But we can’t get to the warehouses,″ she said. ″Our convoys get shot at every time we try to get food out. We were happy the other day when we succeeded in getting out less than one ton of food.″

Rwanda is a landlocked country with bad roads and poor communications, and large-scale food deliveries won’t be easy even if there’s peace.

To complicate matters, most of the displaced people are on the move in southern Rwanda, but it’s not clear where they will settle.

If a truce is reached, they may stay in Rwanda, which is the best scenario, the aid groups agree. If fighting rages on, they could be driven into Burundi or Zaire, two unstable countries ill-equipped to handle the influx.

″Many people are still in hiding. We don’t yet know the scope of the needs,″ said Fritz Lherisson, the UNICEF representative in Nairobi.

Aid groups say they have not heard reports of hunger-related deaths in Rwanda, but acknowledge their information is sketchy because they have so few people in the nation.

However, Associated Press reporter Tina Susman said at least 20 people were dying daily, most from hunger-related illness, in the southern village of Ruhango. The rebel stronghold is about 15 miles south of the Gitarama, the provisional headquarters of the government.

Maj. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, a Canadian who commands the U.N. force in Rwanda, estimates 2 million of the country’s 8 million people have been displaced.

The war already has created the world’s largest refugee camp. About 300,000 people are at the Benaco Camp in neighboring Tanzania. Aid groups are feeding those refugees and say they could do the same in Rwanda if it were safe.

June is the traditional harvesting season in Rwanda, but the crops remain in the field due to the upheaval.

″The agriculture season has been lost,″ Ms. Barton said.

Rwanda, a densely populated nation of small-scale farmers, suffered a drought this year and was headed for food shortages even before President Juvenal Habyarimana’s death in a mysterious April 6 plane crash that sparked the massacres and reignited the civil war.

A week before the slaughter erupted, the British-based aid group Oxfam estimated that 850,000 Rwandans urgently needed food.

″Even if the situation normalizes soon, the repercussions of the current crisis on farming will be serious for the remainder of 1994 and even beyond,″ the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization said in a report last month.

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