A vanguard of 43 American soldiers landed Thursday in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, to begin laying the groundwork for an international force to rescue Rwandan refugees trapped in a war zone in eastern Zaire.
But here in Goma, the hub of relief operations for the refugees in Zaire, artillery fire rattled the dawn sky and fighting flared west of town Thursday morning.
The shelling was a reminder that American troops are about to walk into an explosive situation - an unstable and ungoverned country where a bewildering array of armed factions still are fighting one another and where thousands of refugees are caught in the middle, threatened with disease and famine.
The biggest problem faced by an intervention force is that there is little if any reliable information about where the million refugees who have been scattered by fighting in the last three weeks have gathered or what condition they are in. The few refugees trickling back into Rwanda have told of refugees dying of thirst and dysentery in a panicked flight through the bush.
The military situation also remains unclear. Zairian rebels who control Goma have kept journalists from leaving the town, and aid workers who had operated camps around Goma all were evacuated two weeks ago when Goma fell to the rebels. Details about where front lines have been drawn, and even who is fighting whom, remain murky.
“We have no access because there is no security at all,” Samantha Bolton, a spokesman for Doctors Without Borders, said. “Everywhere you go, you are blocked.”
An ad hoc alliance of Zairian rebel forces, some with ties to the Tutsi-led government in Rwanda, are still fighting with thousands of well-armed Hutu guerrillas and Zairian soldiers around a refugee camp nine miles west of Goma.
There are thought to be as many as 400,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees behind the Hutu lines, the largest concentration of refugees in the region. They are spread out between the camp, known as Mugunga, and Sake, a town about nine miles farther west, U.N. officials say.
The Hutu refugees first flooded into Zaire in 1994 to escape an advancing Tutsi rebel army. Among them were at least 40,000 soldiers loyal to the former Hutu-led government in Rwanda and tens of thousands of militiamen who helped carry out massacres of Tutsi and moderate Hutu in which at least 500,000 people were killed.
The refugee camps were set up to stop a cholera epidemic, but they soon became permanent settlements, bases for Hutu militias that mounted raids into Rwanda. These militiamen also intimidated refugees who wanted to return home. In the last year, they have joined with Zairian soldiers and local vigilantes in attacks on Zairian Tutsi.
Over the last month, the Zairian Tutsi have struck back, starting a rebellion that drove the poorly equipped Zairian army from a 185-mile-long strip of land along Rwanda and Burundi. The Tutsi rebels were joined by other Zairian opposition groups disenchanted with President Mobutu Sese Seko’s government, which is widely seen as corrupt.
As the rebels advanced, the Hutu militiamen and former soldiers joined the battle, fighting alongside the Zairian military. The refugees were caught in between, and scattered from their camps.
The U.N. plan is to secure the road from Goma to the camp and lure the refugees back to Rwanda, offering them food and medicine. But the road is currently a dangerous no-man’s-land where skirmishes break out every day between rebel forces and Hutu fighters.
People who traveled to Goma from Sake in boats on Thursday said another force of Zairian rebels are advancing against the Hutu guerrillas from Sake, sandwiching the refugees in between.
They said the Hutu guerrillas, who call themselves the interahamwe, have dug into defensive positions along the main road from Goma to Sake - the same road along which the United Nations hopes to entice refugees back home - and are threatening to fight anyone who tries to dislodge them.
“If foreign troops come here the interahamwe are saying they will fight them before they run,” Lwaboshi Menne, a Zairian who arrived in Goma on Thursday, told Reuters. “They were everywhere, on the roads and in the bush.”
To make matters worse, for several days, the Hutu guerrillas and the Zairian rebels have traded artillery fire. Early on Thursday morning, rebel guns on a hill in Goma fired for two hours, spraying shells toward the camp. Trucks full of rebel soldiers were seen rushing in the same direction. Clinton administration officials say U.S. forces would be used to secure the airfield at Goma - a critical supply line - as well as a three-mile corridor from Goma to the Rwandan border, all territory now held by the rebels. The idea would be to encourage the refugees to return home through the corridor.
But it remains unclear how the intervention force would open a path from Goma to the Mugunga camp, where the Hutu militia are likely to resist. In addition, it remains to be seen how the mission would help nearly half a million refugees who are scattered around Bukavu, a town 150 miles to the south on the other end of Lake Kivu, or the hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled into forests north of Goma.
One problem for any foreign force approaching the refugee camp is that the Hutu militiamen are backed into a corner. If they return to Rwanda, they would certainly face prosecution or reprisals from the Tutsi government for war crimes. Allowing the rest of the refugees to return would mean giving up the one bargaining chip they have with the United Nations, which has fed them for two years.
“They have no place to run,” a U.N. official said, insisting on anonymity. “It’s eastern Zaire’s equivalent of the Alamo.”
The rebels’ agenda may also run afoul of the peacekeepers. Their commanders have made it clear that they want the international force to separate the Hutu fighters from the rest of the refugees, a mission that would likely mean casualties for the peacekeepers but not for the rebels. The rebels have also said they will not stand for the United Nations setting up permanent camps again.
“They are coming here to feed refugees and to allow them to go back to their home country, and of course they have to disarm these people,” Laurent Kabila, the rebels’ leader, said on Thursday.
Kabila said he would not allow the American troops to seize Goma’s airport without first negotiating a agreement with his forces. “Why should they occupy the airport,” he asked. “We must protect ourselves. We haven’t negotiated with these forces. We just heard on the radio they were coming.”
The team of American soldiers who arrived in the Rwandan capital from Uganda are going to look into these security problems, and other conditions on the ground that could affect how they provide logistical support.
“We are here to conduct an initial assessment for possible humanitarian assistance, either unilaterally or multilaterally,” Maj. Gen. Edwin P. Smith, commander of the South European Task Force, based at Vicenza in Italy, told reporters as the team arrived. Led by Canada, the relief operation is also expected to include troops from France, Brazil, Spain, Mali, and other countries.
Nearly everyone in Goma, from U.N. officials to aid workers to rebel leaders, have argued that the camps must be closed and the Hutu guerrillas must be separated from the noncombatant refugees. The longer the crisis continues, however, the more disease and hunger will take their toll and it becomes less likely that the refugees will be able to walk back to Rwanda.
Some aid workers have asserted that the rebels are intentionally stalling the relief efforts and keeping aid workers from the camps to starve out their enemies.
“It’s all a delaying tactic,” said one aid official, insisting on anonymity. “By the time we get in there, at this rate, we will be bringing in the lime and body bags.”
Graphic: Zaire update
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