Mary Braid in Gisenyi, Rwanda Sunday, 10 November 1996

At the end of the short stretch of no man’s land between Rwanda and Zaire yesterday the same hostile rebel boy soldier was standing, dwarfed by his AK-47.

His comrade in the laceless gym shoes, sporting the uniform of the enemy Zairean army, was missing. Otherwise everything was as it has been since the border between Goma and Gisenyi, on the banks of Lake Kivu, closed three days ago. Except the frustration with politicians, which has reached a peak.

A diplomatic breakthrough, which might save more than a million Rwandan Hutu refugees trapped by war, had seemed imminent. But yesterday’s UN decision, to give the Secretary- General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a week and a half to formulate a plan for a multinational force to deliver international relief, dismayed aid workers stuck with emergency supplies on the Rwandan side of the border. “Aid was needed yesterday,” said Leslie Shanks, a doctor with Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). “The situation is shaping up to be genocide by disease.”

Growing support for outside force to save the refugees was emphasised by the unprecedented decision of the International Committee of the Red Cross to back agencies’ calls for Western intervention. Even Zaire’s President Mobutu Sese Seko, whose absence from the country for cancer treatment has contributed to the present instability, said in an interview with the French newspaper, Liberation, he would accept a multinational rescue force. Conva- lescing in France after surgery, he said he would go home “in several weeks” to tackle the revolt.

Just six miles beyond the border are the Mugunga camp refugees, 500,000- strong but unreachable and invisible to the outside world. As Ray Wilkinson, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said in Gisenyi: “You can almost smell the refugees from here, but they might as well be on the moon.”

The refugees are trapped in a battle between the Rwandan-backed rebels and the Interahamwe, the Hutu militias who led them out of Rwanda and into Zaire after orchestrating the genocide of 800,000 of their Tutsi countrymen in 1994. A trickle have managed to escape the fighting – yesterday about 120 Rwandan Hutus arrived in Goma after walking for more than a week without food or water except what they could scavenge by the roadside.

That TV crews cannot reach the refugees is a nightmare for aid workers anxious to shame governments into immediate action but, for others, the news blackout is a blessing. Without the cameras the refugees’ story is robbed of power; with them it becomes too simple. Yesterday aid workers recounted how the Interahamwe ran the refugee camps and used them as a base from which to destabilise Rwanda and neighbouring countries.

If the Interahamwe is not defeated in this continuation of Rwanda’s 1994 civil war on Zairean soil, commentators forecast the refugees will continue to refuse to return home and the camps will remain a threat to peace in the region. But one dying baby caught on film could wipe out every argument in favour of allowing the rebels to eradicate the Hutu extremists who engineered genocide then exported their campaign against the Tutsis to eastern Zaire.

Sympathy for the refugees is sparse amongst those who witnessed the Rwandan genocide. Even aid workers waiting to help at the border post admit ambivalence. “The bodies were piled high in the camp,” said one, recalling the 1994 cholera epidemic which wiped out 50,000 Hutus just two weeks after they crossed into Zaire. “It is terrible that I turned to the person who is with me and said: `Divine retribution,’ and he just nodded.” But the same aid worker pointed out that a fifth of the one million Hutus in Zairean camps are under five.

At the border yesterday there was one small victory. Dr Joe Kasereka Lusi, the only surgeon in Goma, managed to convince rebel border guards to allow the transfer of medical supplies from MSF and the German charity CBN International. When Goma was taken last weekend he had to operate on the injured without anaesthetic. He was without basic medicine and equipment when scores were hurt in a grenade attack on people who had fled the town but then returned on Wednesday. The rebels mistook them for Interahamwe.

Yesterday it was hard enough negotiating help for rebel-held Goma: the outlook for the refugees looks grim. Dr Lusi’s British-born wife Lyn spoke for many: “The United Nations won’t do anything to help the refugees until the Interahamwe is beaten in the camp.”


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