Terrified by Zairian soldiers trying to force them back to their hostile homelands, more than 133,000 refugees from Rwanda and Burundi have bolted from refugee camps into the countryside, carrying scant food and water and raising fears of new epidemics and mass starvation.
“Getting any assistance to them is going to be impossible, and we don’t know how long they can last out there in those conditions,” Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency in Geneva, said Wednesday.
The Clinton administration demanded an immediate end to the expulsions. But Zaire - which had warned the United Nations of the expulsions - said it would continue to force the refugees back across the border despite warnings of an epidemic similar to that which killed 50,000 refugees in Goma last year.
Officials in Zaire have complained the 1.8 million refugees on its soil - more than in any other country - have disrupted normal life in border areas and caused considerable environmental damage.
Zaire also decided to expel the refugees because it feels they pose a major security risk after the United Nations lifted an arms embargo against Rwanda last week.
The prime minister of Zaire, Kengo Wa Dondo, gave that explanation in an Aug. 17 letter to U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. The letter, which warned of the coming expulsions, was released Wednesday by the United Nations.
Zaire apparently feared that battles between the Tutsi-led Rwandan government and Hutu extremists in the refugee camps would take place on its side of the border.
Almost all the refugees in eastern Zaire are Hutus from Rwanda and Burundi, two small Central African countries with similar ethnic makeups - and ethnic strife.
Nearly 2 million Hutus fled Rwanda in July 1994 when Tutsi-led rebels seized power. Hutu-led militias had killed an estimated 500,000 people, mostly minority Tutsis, in the preceding months, and the refugees feared retaliation.
Rwanda’s Tutsi-led government had demanded an end to the arms embargo, claiming that Hutu militias in the camps were rearming to attack Rwanda.
Burundian Hutus, who long have been dominated by the nation’s Tutsi minority, fled after the country’s first Hutu president was killed in a failed 1993 coup, sparking ethnic violence that killed more than 100,000.
In Washington, the State Department called for an immediate halt to the expulsions from Zaire.
Spokesman David Johnson said the action risks a grave humanitarian crisis and an increase in tensions not only along Zaire’s border with Rwanda but also within Zaire itself as refugees seeking to escape repatriation scatter through the countryside.
“We are deeply disturbed by the prospect of confrontations between Zairian security forces, the Zairian population, forces of the former government of Rwanda and refugees,” he said.
Aid officials said at least 2,000 people were forced across the border on Wednesday, and 13,000 to 18,000 since Saturday, when the expulsions began. Many more fled to escape repatriation.
At a group of camps around Uvira on the northern edge of Lake Tanganyika, some 100,000 refugees ran into the hills when Zairian soldiers approached, said Peter Kessler, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency in Nairobi.
More than 13,000 refugees fled into the countryside around Bukavu and 20,000 more from Goma.
“This has all the makings of a disaster,” Kessler said. “People see a Zairian soldier and they run into the hills.”
Chris Bowers, a U.N. refugee spokesman in Goma, said more refugees had begun to return home voluntarily as the camps were destroyed by the soldiers.
What the doctor ordered
The expulsion is, some say, exactly what was needed. But not this way. It’s a shame. But it might work. It’s brutal. But it could forestall even greater tragedy ahead. Or it may be just another kind of misery in one of the world’s most infernal reaches.
Still, a few of those crossing from Goma bore smiles Wednesday. Most were stoic, holding the hands of their children and following orders. One man resisted and was dragged away screaming.
The United Nations and the legion of humanitarian groups here deplored the forced return of Rwandan and Burundian Hutus. International law is supposed to protect the rights of refugees.
But, on the other hand, many seasoned officials of these organizations conceded that their yearlong campaign to coax the refugees home, voluntarily, had flopped.
And practically everyone is strapped for cash to assist the refugees for much longer. So far, other nations, including the United States, have provided $700 million to feed and care for the refugees. But the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said earlier this month it has to cut its budget due to waning interest among donor countries.
“In a way, this move by Zaire may work. We’ve been complaining about the deadlock in this process” of voluntary repatriation, said Nicolas Cantau, regional refugee director for Doctors Without Borders, an international non-government aid agency. “Maybe this can be the first step in moving forward.”