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Cholera Wanes as Tensions Rise in Zaire Camps

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The existence that passes as living for the 1 million Rwandan refugees in this country grew better Thursday, and, of course, worse--and all the while more tangled and troubling.

Finally, the rising tide of cholera, which killed so many thousands, was declared medically contained. The squalid camps spread north and south of here even began to show the faint sparks of vigor. But with vigor has come new tensions, killing and the threat of spreading political discontent.

“The cholera epidemic is over,” said Panos Moumtsis, spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. “The curve of death, as we call it, is going down.”

By that, the agency said it was expressing the consensus of the many relief groups assisting here on the Rwandan border. But only by the abstract medical definition is the epidemic anywhere near over.

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The brutal, humiliating death of uncontrollable diarrhea and dehydration still claimed perhaps 700 lives Thursday. It will take 700 more lives today, hundreds more tomorrow and the next day--and for days to come.

But because improvements in the flow of supplies and clean water have led to a reduction in the number of deaths from a daily high of 1,800 to 2,000 a week ago, and since the number of new cases reported is also declining, the technical conditions of epidemic have passed. The U.N. refugee agency said, however, that deaths from dysentery were mounting each day, with uncertain prospects for control.

If the surviving refugees could take some solace from their misery as they rested and fed themselves on the increasing amounts of relief food, they faced renewed fears: their own vulnerability to the defeated army that led them out of Rwanda and to the robber instincts of the underpaid soldiers from Zaire who have greeted them here. “Security is getting worse and tensions are building up fast,” Moumtsis said.

Refugees on Thursday pounced on a Zairian guard outside the outlying camp called Katale and hacked him to death with machetes. Intervention by U.N. refugee officials prevented a swift retaliatory attack by other Zairian soldiers. But alarm spread through the refugee ranks--in some places automobiles stopped in the middle of the road and blocked traffic so the driver could shout out news of the killing and warn of the danger of reprisals.

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Relief officials said refugees had suffered repeated robberies and extortion by Zairian soldiers. In this case, the checkpoint sentry reportedly demanded money from a Rwandan refugee who tried to drive into the camp in his car, bearing Rwandan plates. Refugees with cars, radios and other possessions are presumed to be people of means and quick targets for soldiers, who are paid virtually nothing in Zaire.

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All over Goma, Zairian soldiers could be seen driving confiscated vehicles. Armed soldiers were seen stopping cars and trucks with Rwandan plates. Independent relief workers and journalists also have reported extortion by soldiers in Zairian uniforms.

Local authorities said they would attempt to investigate the attack but more pressing was the Zairian commander’s demand for the return of the slain soldier’s rifle.

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Tensions also are mounting between Goma’s civilians and the refugees. The huge influx here has driven up the cost of living to Klondike standards. A 50-cent bottle of beer now costs $8, a $25 bag of sugar is more than $60. Local farmers say Rwandans are ravaging their banana plantations and vegetable crops.

Farmers on Thursday demanded that Zairian authorities take firmer control of refugees, and at least one camp was ordered evacuated and relocated farther from town.

Meanwhile, what sounded to be nearby, intermittent automatic rifle fire was heard from the direction of the refugee camp where former members of the Rwandan army are segregated, supposedly separate from the general refugee population.

Relief officials said the weaponry display demonstrated that attempts to disarm the defeated, bitter soldiers had been unsuccessful. It also showed civilian refugees that their old army was not entirely toothless, as it continued to demand that Rwandans not return home.

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Augustin Rusanganwa, a former official in the defeated Rwandan government, said the goal was to keep refugees in camps in the hope--no matter how vague and grasping--that their tragedy would so alarm the world that global intervention in Rwanda would be inevitable.

“The international community has to bring about negotiations,” he said. “The war in Rwanda was not a political war, but a tribal war. What I don’t understand and what many refugees don’t understand is how the West, how the U.S.A., can accept a minority group taking over the country. That’s not democracy at all.”

The defeated government, its army and nearly all the refugees here are Hutus, who recently accounted for 85% of Rwanda’s population. The Rwandan Patriotic Front, which won the war, is predominantly Tutsi.


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