U.N. Admits Its Efforts to Persuade Rwandans to Go Home Are Failing : Africa: Despite food stops and bus transit on the roads back, and radio campaigns saying it’s safe to return, refugees are reluctant to leave Zaire.
The United Nations conceded Friday that it has failed in its campaign to coax significant numbers of 900,000 Rwandan refugees out of the squalid camps here and get them moving home.
In turn, the United Nations and leaders of the Western nations found themselves bitterly criticized by one private relief agency for not doing more to help ease the suffering.
“Goma is becoming the new Gaza Strip. Even if a lot more refugees start returning home, I’m afraid we’re going to have vast numbers of them staying here for a very long time,” said Panos Moumtsis, spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Moumtsis hesitated to guess how long the refugees might stay--whether it would be months, years or a generation.
A month ago, the first of the refugees began to stream here out of Rwanda. Within four days, they had turned themselves into the greatest, fastest-moving tide of refugees in modern times. Ever since, the United Nations has maintained that the only real hope for these impoverished people is repatriation.
To that end, relief coordinators have established food stops, hospitals and bus transportation along the roads back into Rwanda. The United Nations has repeatedly spread the word here and around the world that refugees will be safe when they go home. Religious and community leaders from the camps have been escorted by the United Nations back into Rwanda to see for themselves. A radio station was established to broadcast testimonials from returning refugees to tell those in the camps that they would be safe.
But the campaign has failed.
Barely 5,000 people a day cross the border back into Rwanda from Zaire. The remainder have dug in to battle disease, hunger and awful, Stone Age living conditions rather than face the rebel army that has taken control of their homeland.
“We’ve never seen people so determined not to go back,” Moumtsis said.
Some relief workers said the repatriation campaign was another waste of energy by the United Nations and was an attempt to sweep Rwanda’s deep ethnic divisions under the rug. “If the U.N. doesn’t learn from this, God help the next poor souls of the world who need help,” said John O’Shea of the Irish relief agency GOAL, which has been active here from the beginning of the refugee crisis.
Using bitter profanities, O’Shea said the United Nations has failed to meet the refugees’ needs and has made no serious effort to make them feel safe going home. He said only a large campaign with the priority of a global military operation could handle a crisis this large.
“Don’t you think, if this were a war, our people would have the supplies they need to fight it?” he demanded. “Frankly, the leaders of the international community are hoping that the people who will go home are the television cameras, and the sooner the better. Then this will be over as far as they’re concerned.”
Conditions in the refugee camps radiating out of Goma remained miserable in the extreme as the Rwandans began their second month here. The United Nations said only 60% of the needed quantities of food were reaching refugees and only half the amount of plastic sheeting needed to build the most primitive kinds of shelter.
The death toll from disease continued at an estimated 500 per day. The United Nations said it had counted 27,000 bodies so far, many left rotting in the sun. Some private groups have estimated that the death toll could be almost three times that great. Because of a suspected outbreak of deadly typhus, soap--to improve hygiene and combat disease-spreading lice--is given highest priority in relief shipments.
Meantime, in Kinshasa, Prime Minister Leon Kengo wa Dondo acknowledged that Zairian troops, sent here to help with the crisis created by more than 1 million Rwandan refugees, “got the situation out of control.”
The Zairian soldiers have been robbing and harassing Rwandan refugees, Zairians and aid workers, according to a number of reports.
“In view of what happened, the first decision is that troops responsible for that situation must be arrested and brought to court,” he told Radio Zaire.
And more immediately, between 1.2 million and 2 million Rwandans remain huddled in the southwestern quarter of their country, where the French military maintains a safety zone. But the French are pulling out, and relief agencies say another stampede into Zaire is quite possible.
But again, there are only the barest of advance preparations under way in the Zaire border town of Bukavu, about 70 miles south of Goma. U.N. officials said that, with continuing supply shortages for the refugees in Goma, there is little that can be spared.
A bitter O’Shea could only shout out the frustration of those who cannot seem to make headway against the despair. “This is the worst aid screw-up in the history of the world! The world is saying to these people, you’re black, you’re Rwandans, you’re not of strategic importance, don’t call us, we’ll call you.”