April 27, 1997 in Nation/World

Hutus Say Villagers Came To Kill Thousands Of Rwandan Refugees Have Vanished From Camps In Zaire; Many Too Weak To Walk

Hrvoje Hranjski Associated Press
 

Rwandan Hutus who survived the latest exodus from refugee camps in eastern Zaire said Saturday that Zairian villagers killed hundreds at one camp, where rebel troops also opened fire.

Rebel leader Laurent Desire Kabila, meanwhile, arrived six hours late for a meeting with a European diplomat and aid workers. The officials were demanding that Kabila tell them the whereabouts of 100,000 missing Rwandan Hutu refugees.

Aid workers have found only a few hundred of the refugees who have vanished since rebel troops sealed off the area south of Kisangani on Monday. They want access to the camps.

Aid workers who flew over the camps Friday and Saturday, briefly visiting the largest, said they were disturbingly empty - considering they held thousands of refugees who had been too weak to walk and were dying at a rate of 60 a day.

The refugees are the last of the 1 million Hutus who fled Rwanda in 1994 while ethnic Tutsis were assuming power. They feared retaliation for the Hutu massacre of a half-million people, mostly Tutsis. Most have since returned to Rwanda.

As international pressure mounted on Kabila to explain how Zairian villagers attacked the refugees and why the rebels failed to protect them, more witness accounts emerged from those who survived.

Faustin Nkizinkiko, a 28-year-old Hutu from Gitarama, Rwanda, said Zairian villagers left “hundreds of dead” in the biggest camp at Kasese, 15 miles from this regional capital.

“I don’t know if they were organized or not. We tried to protect ourselves, but they were attacking with machetes,” he said. “We don’t know why.”

Days ago, that camp held 55,000 refugees, many of them suffering from malaria or cholera. Aid workers who briefly visited Kasese on Friday did not see any bodies or mass graves.

U.N. workers were allowed to fly over the camps Saturday to bring food to about 300 refugees spotted there. But they saw mostly rebel troops, not refugees, said Paul Stromberg, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

The Obilo camp, which held 3,000 refugees, also was empty. Rebel soldiers set up roadblocks around the camp.

When the plane landed at an airstrip eight miles away, only a few hundred refugees emerged from the forest.

A 25-year-old Hutu woman who had been working in a field hospital in Kasese camp said villagers armed with sticks, spears and machetes entered the hospital Monday and hacked people to death.

“I saw many dead bodies lying around the camp, but nobody stopped to count them,” said the woman, who refused to give her name. She said the attackers had been wearing civilian clothes and bandanas around their heads.

After the first attack, she said, refugees began returning to the camp. They heard a train coming and thought it was bringing food. But it was carrying rebel soldiers who began firing into the camp, she said.

Rebels say they do not know what happened to the refugees. They have repeatedly blocked U.N. efforts to fly the refugees home and have done little to prevent looting and attacks by Zairian villagers.

The Zairian rebels, many of them ethnic Tutsis from the east, claim to have clashed with renegade Rwandan Hutu soldiers hidden among the refugees.

Bill Richardson, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was to travel to Zaire on Monday to meet with President Mobutu Sese Seko and Kabila on the civil war and the refugee crisis.

The mounting international outrage over the rebel handling of the refugee situation seemed to have prompted Kabila to deal directly with the matter.

Kabila’s arrival was delayed for more than six hours as he reportedly met with his Cabinet.

“I am waiting for him to see what we are going to do next,” said Aldo Ajello, envoy for the 15-member European Union, the largest single donor to aid operations in eastern Zaire.


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