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No Middle Ground for Fearful Rwandans : Africa: Refugees at the border in fertile southwest must soon decide whether to flee to misery of Zaire or face potential foes.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just down the road is the border between Rwanda and Zaire. On this side are the flowers of virgin, mountain forests; on the other are raw city sewers and teeming alleys.

There is no middle ground. These days, in these parts, every step leads to the extreme.

This is a place where brutal tyrants have become meek, shoeless refugees, where victimizers are transformed into victims, where black Africans turn in desperation to white Europeans for the only help there is.

In Cyangugu, citizens loot their own country and plot vengeance on avengers. And all the time, there is fear in their eyes, because fear is their destiny.

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Across the border, Zairians ask themselves a troubling question: Why is their part of the country so much more a rubble heap than up the road in war-ravaged Rwanda?

The misery of these borders is full of unimaginable contradictions.

Start with the landscape. Rwanda is a beautiful country. War and bloodshed have not changed that; 15 miles away, the Nyungwe forest is Africa from the picture books--the grandest, most colorful of equatorial jungles, combined with Alp-like mountains. The road is wide and paved smooth. At either end of the forest are tea and banana plantations, thatch-hut villages. There is a misty timelessness to the landscape, a sense of order. Patients in hospitals sleep one to a bed, even in wartime. Water runs in the municipal pipes.

In this part of southwestern Rwanda, 1.2 million people are massed. Most are refugees from other parts of the land. In terraced camps on steep hills, they live in orderly rows of huts made of eucalyptus branches. The dirt is soft, the surrounding lands fertile.

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But in the next week or 10 days, the people here will make their decision: Do they stampede into despair, inflicting on themselves greater disease and rootlessness than they already know? Or do they remain and face the enemy, whose heart they also fear they know?

If they flee, hundreds of thousands are likely to squeeze across the border here, shuffling over a one-lane wooden bridge into Bukavu, Zaire. They will follow another 1 million of their countrymen who crossed earlier into suffering at Goma, Zaire, more than 70 miles to the north.

What awaits them? A country more deeply mired in poverty than their own, for one thing.

In Bukavu, the roads are so poor and cratered that a visitor can get carsick just winding in from the airport. Top speed: 15 m.p.h.

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In Goma, an open sewer is cut right through town. It does not flow but is periodically shoveled out into stinking heaps a few feet away from food vendors. Human bodies are pulled out here and there and trucked away. Electricity is unreliable, the water runs through pipes only a few minutes every few days. Hospitals hold three to a bed. The land onto which the refugees are herded is sharp, volcanic rock.

Almost everyone who has crossed the border a few times asks: “Wait a minute, which country was just ripped asunder by war?”

The contradictions hardly stop there. In the turbulent politics of Africa’s ethnic strife, the winners got the land. But the losing regime still maintains control over perhaps two-thirds of the population, now displaced and fearful. And an army that still controls the people is not yet defeated. So in a large sense, the Rwandan civil war is not over. This is perhaps only a lull.

What about those for whom the world has offered its sympathies--the suffering in the camps, the orphaned army of children? Among these refugees are also soldiers, youthful militia, neighbors and community leaders, farmers and hillside herders; a significant number of these folk engaged in one of the most brutal slaughters of recent years: perhaps 500,000 people hacked and beaten to death because they belonged to a different tribe.

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“I have sat many times at the table with their leaders and I’ve known that among them were killers. It’s very strange,” said Col. Erik de Stabenrath of the French marines.

The majority Hutus, losers and refugees, have been described, physically, as being shorter and possessing heavy features. The Tutsis, the minority in Rwanda and the winners right now, have been described as taller and with sharper features.

In truth, the physical differences are so subtle as to be known only to those schooled in African tribal distinctions. It is not something so simple as the color of skin that breeds hatred and mistrust here in this part of Africa now.

Indeed, the contrary is true. The Hutus are protected in this zone by mostly white troops from France. The onetime colonialists are almost revered. French flags fly from even the simplest of huts.

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Instead of trying to get the French out, the Rwandan Hutus connive to keep them here.

But the French vow to pull out this month and leave the Hutus behind a shield of U.N. troops drawn from other African nations.

Capt. Sammy Adorkor commands a company of Ghanaian soldiers, which is taking over one large sector of the French zone.

“At the time we came, we heard they (the Hutus) didn’t have confidence in the U.N. and the soldiers of Ghana, that they would leave if the French left,” he said. “We are making intensive efforts with our patrols and contacts with the refugees here to convince them we will provide absolute security.”

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Will his word suffice? French Capt. Sylvian Mattivicci said he could only hope: “We are powerless against panic. With the U.N., there will be more troops protecting this zone than ever before. Food is coming. There are more medical supplies and doctors than ever. Will the people give that up for death, illness and no more guarantees of security?”

Here in Cyangugu, thousands of refugees have already made up their minds. They are leaving Rwanda. And while the French protect them, they are pillaging everything that can be carried--doors, beams, windows, toilet seats, pipes, electric wire, their neighbors’ laundry, stray chickens.

All day long, they go back and forth across the border like a line of leaf ants. They are destroying this town to rebuild across the border, seeking not so much a new life as another chapter in the old. If they can keep control, they will plan their vengeance, sustaining themselves through their misery on a raw diet of hatred. And they will plot their eventual counterattack.

They have a model: The Tutsis did the same thing a generation ago. They fled Rwanda, gained strength and determination. And look what happened.

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How to Help

Here is a partial list of aid agencies assisting Rwanda:

Africare

Africare House

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440 R St. N.W.

Washington, D.C. 20001

(202) 462-3614

AmeriCares, Rwanda Relief

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161 Cherry St.

New Canaan, Conn. 06840

(800) 486-HELP

American Red Cross, Rwanda Relief

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P.O. Box 37243

Washington, D.C. 20013

(800) 842-2200

CARE

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151 Ellis St.

Atlanta, Ga. 30303

(800) 521-CARE

Catholic Relief Services

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P.O. Box 17090

Baltimore, Md. 21298-9664

(800) SEND-HOPE

Church World Service

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P.O. Box 968

Elkhart, Ind. 46515

(219) 264-3102

Doctors Without Borders USA Inc.

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30 Rockefeller Plaza, Suite 5425

New York, N.Y. 10112

(212) 649-5961

The Episcopal Church Presiding Bishops Fund

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815 2nd Ave.

New York, N.Y. 10017

(800) 334-7626, Ext. 5138

Lutheran World Relief

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390 Park Ave. S.

New York, N.Y. 10016

(212) 532-6350

Oxfam America

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26 West St.

Boston, Mass. 02111

(617) 482-1211

Operation USA

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8320 Melrose Ave.

Los Angeles, Calif. 90069

(800) 678-7255

Save the Children, Rwanda Emergency

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P.O. Box 975, Dept. RW

Westport, Conn. 06881

(800) 243-5075

United Methodist Committee on Relief

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475 Riverside Drive, Room 1374

New York, N.Y. 10115

(212) 870-3816

U.S. Committee for UNHCR

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2012 Massachusetts Ave. N.W.

Washington, D.C. 20036

(800) 220-1115

U.S. Committee for UNICEF

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333 E. 38th St., 6th Floor

New York, N.Y. 10016

(800) FOR-KIDS

World Concern, Rwanda Relief

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P.O. Box 33000

Seattle, Wash. 98133

(800) 782-5577

World Vision

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P.O. Box 1131

Pasadena, Calif. 91131

(800) 423-4200

YMCA of the USA

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101 N. Wacker Drive

Chicago, Ill. 60606-7386

(312) 977-0031


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