Rwandan Hutu refugees desperate to get out of squalid camps in eastern Zaire rushed U.N. vehicles Friday, clinging to anything that moved in hopes of reaching the airport for an airlift home.
Most were pushed back by Zairian rebel soldiers using whip-like bamboo sticks and by aid workers who said their four available trucks were to be used only for those close to death.
“To push sick people off the trucks is awful, but we have no other choice,” said Carol Baouid of the U.N. children’s agency.
As the overloaded trucks pulled away, dozens of refugees chased them. Four climbed aboard. One, a man, was tossed off by a female aide worker. One woman who was left behind wailed that her baby was on a truck.
Nearby, aid workers sprayed disinfectant on open wounds so refugees wouldn’t end up like one small child, who had maggots covering his sores. Twenty corpses wrapped in blue sheets added the stench of death to the gloom.
After lengthy delays, the rebels who control eastern Zaire have given aid workers 60 days to ferry up to 80,000 refugees onto planes at an airport near the regional hub of Kisangani. Aid workers hope to fly out about 2,000 a day in what would be the biggest refugee airlift in Africa.
Here at Biaro, 25 miles south of Kisangani, aid workers raced to put up temporary plastic shelters for some refugees while getting others ready to leave.
At the camp’s makeshift hospital, two doctors - with no running water and little help - did what they could to help hundreds of sick refugees lying in the hot sun.
As 18-year-old refugee Augustine Nyamuasa explained how he got a bloody bandage on his head, Zairian rebels drove through the camp. They were singing a war song, which terrified Nyamuasa.
“They attacked the camp last week,” he said. “I fled to the forest, but they found us. One soldier came to me with an axe in his hand and hit me in the head.”
The rebels are now cooperating in efforts to return the refugees to Rwanda. But Nyamuasa’s account backed up reports that as recently as last week the rebels had joined local villagers in attacking refugees, massacring some and driving others into the jungle.
A United Nations team is headed to Zaire this weekend to investigate the allegations, even though the rebels so far have refused to permit the visit.
U.N. officials said the rebels objected to the presence of one member of the investigation team - Roberto Garreton of Chile, who has reported finding 40 sites in eastern Zaire that he believes are mass graves.