Facebook Twitter

ZAIRE SEEKS ACTION ON REFUGEES

SHARE ZAIRE SEEKS ACTION ON REFUGEES

Zairian officials say they may go back to expelling refugees at gunpoint if the United Nations doesn't get the 1.2 million people who have camped along its border for more than a year to go home soon.

"We are crushed here," said Mayor Mashako Mamba Sebi, summing up the exasperation felt by Goma residents, who numbered about 200,000 before the arrival of the Rwandan and Burundian refugees.A handful of Rwandans left Saturday on U.N. trucks, but not even the threat of more forced expulsions could budge the vast majority from the fly-blown camps that have become home.

Under a scorching sun, those remaining gathered sticks and rebuilt huts torched by Zairian soldiers last week in a five-day sweep aimed at driving out the refugees.

Some 15,000 were forced home, but 173,000 others fled into the countryside, and aid officials warned that another humanitarian crisis was brewing.

Zaire suspended the forced expulsions after the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees agreed to resume a voluntary repatriation program, and the refugees returned from the hills to their camps.

"What happened this past week was a good thing, because the international community was asleep," Goma's mayor said. "But if things don't move, we'll be obliged to start again."

Since the voluntary repatriation program began Friday, only about 250 refugees have come forward - 200 the first day, 47 the next. No repatriations were held Sunday, a day off for the UNHCR.

Nearly all the refugees are Hutus, the ethnic majority blamed for the massacres of at least 500,000 Rwandans during last year's civil war. Most victims were minority Tutsis, the ethnic group that defeated the former Hutu regime and now holds power in Rwanda.

Hutus fear retribution from Tutsis if they return to Rwanda or Burundi, which has the same ethnic divisions as Rwanda.

Indeed, many have grown accustomed to life in the camps, which number about 50 and range in population from 200,000 to a few hundred. Kahindo camp, 30 miles from Goma, has a hairdresser shop, a disco, and an auto garage. Young women fall in love and get married in satin gowns made by a dressmaker.

UNHCR officials, who say they have the capacity to bus home 5,000 daily, claim it's far too early to declare the repatriation effort a failure. The issue was to be discussed Monday in Geneva between Zairian Prime Minister Kengo wa Dondo and the U.N. refugee commissioner, Sadako Ogata.

Zaire was expected to demand guarantees of faster repatriations before promising a permanent halt to expulsions.

Adrien Kalinunda's family won't be around if it does. He packed his wife, six of his seven children, some bedding, food and a lantern aboard the single bus that chugged back Saturday to Rwanda.

Missing from the family picture was 10-year-old daughter Isabelle, who was rounded up and deported after Zairian soldiers - guns blazing, according to Kalinunda - attacked their camp Aug. 19.

Kalinunda hopes to reunite the family by going home. He has wanted to go for a long time, he said, but extremist Hutu militias in the camps view those planning to return as traitors and sometimes kill them.

"I think most people want to go back," Kalinunda said.