Rwanda Refugee Flight Brings Misery to Bukavu


The mountain forests of Central Africa rise steeply from the banks of Lake Kivu at this remote, run-down resort town. The 200,000 or so residents here prefer to lift their eyes from the seedy streets and proclaim it the “green city.”

But now, under the unstoppable pressure of another Rwandan refugee migration, Bukavu is being reduced hour by hour to another squalid cesspool of misery.

Already, 50,000 Rwandans have poured into the city, overrunning its parks and streets with their makeshift hovels. More press in each hour. The relentless chop-chop of machetes has denuded the green city of much of its greenery. The air is damp with the reek of human waste and campfire smoke. The fear of banditry is palpable.

And Thursday, the United Nations and relief agencies said the first epidemic of disease has taken hold here--deadly shigella dysentery, resistant to all but the most expensive and exotic antibiotics. Cholera and meningitis also are reported, although not yet at epidemic levels.


“Sanitation is horrible. People are sleeping on top of each other. There are problems with water. It is the start of a real disaster,” said Samantha N. Bolton of the French relief agency Doctors Without Borders.

To the north, the Zairian border city of Goma already has endured this horror. But Bukavu presents its own unsettling challenges as more refugees come streaming down the Rwandan roads in epic columns, now more than 100 miles long.

For one thing, unlike Goma, this area is densely populated and there are no satisfactory sites for refugee camps nearby. Within a 20-mile radius, 12 small camps have been established to hold about 55,000 people.

Another site was designated Thursday for 60,000 people--but it is an impossible 60 miles away, meaning already weak refugees will have to march another four days. Or transportation will have to be found to truck them the 4 1/2-hour drive over miserable roads.


“It’s a bad solution, but it’s the only one we have,” said Kris Janowski of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, shrugging.

The critical question for this region is how many refugees eventually will end up here. About 320,000 Rwandans are now massed in the vicinity of the Rwanda-Zaire border. Perhaps another 1 million or 1.5 million are within walking distance.

The region of Rwanda adjacent to Bukavu has been designated a “safe zone” for refugees from Rwanda’s civil war and is protected by French troops--but only until Monday, when they promise to complete their pullout and leave security to U.N. peacekeepers from an assortment of African nations.

A desperate campaign is under way to persuade the refugees not to stampede into Zaire. The effort is led by the French and the United Nations, with cooperation from the victorious new government in Rwanda, installed by the rebel, Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front.


But the defeated, Hutu-controlled government is mounting an equally vigorous propaganda campaign to propel the refugees into Zaire.

In essence, two governments--the old and the new--are battling to control a substantial chunk of Rwanda’s population. And this population, most of it poor, uneducated Hutu farmers, wants only its safety.

The people of Zaire, meanwhile, are likewise pawns in a larger game of African politics. President Mobutu Sese Seko of this economically troubled nation has not resisted the refugee influx, despite its bitter toll on his people.

Western nations cut off most economic aid to the Mobutu government three years ago in frustration with his corrupt, authoritarian regime. But now Western nations find themselves at his doorstep, asking for his help in the crisis.


“Everyone seems to think this is a real boon for Mobutu,” said one Western diplomat. So far, Mobutu has not reached out his hand for renewed Western assistance. “But he will, you can be sure,” said the diplomat.