KIBUMBA REFUGEE CAMP, Zaire — Deep inside this pestilential camp, where 300,000 Rwandan refugees struggle in a living nightmare, Alphonse Putsingile sat back Tuesday in a spacious compound, protected by young toughs and high walls topped with shards of broken glass.
He has trucks, food and water, and a barefoot man squatted nearby pressing pants with an iron filled with hot coals. The agonizing death and disease outside seemed far away for the once-powerful local government leader of Rwerere district in northwestern Rwanda.
Putsingile insisted that none of the refugees should leave. "The people will be all killed if they go home," he said. "So it is better to stay here."
But time is running out. Aid officials say the estimated 1.2 million Rwandan refugees now facing the agony of Zaire's border camps have about two weeks to go home and harvest the bursting fields of corn, beans and other crops that carpet the lush country.
After that, the crops will start to rot and the refugees won't be able to return unless they are given emergency supplies inside Rwanda, dramatically expanding the already overwhelmed international aid effort.
"We'd have to do another massive aid effort," said Ray Wilkinson, spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Yet the hungry refugees are fed a steady diet of fear and propaganda by former Hutu government officials and their minions, who insist they will be tortured and killed if they return to Rwanda. They claim that the estimated 30,000 refugees who have crossed the border since Sunday are dead, although journalists and other witnesses have seen them walking home safely.
Most of the Hutu government fled here July 15 before the advancing rebel army of the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front. Now out of power, the exiled leaders apparently have decided to use whatever means possible to keep the Hutus here as political bargaining chips, despite the horrors of a widening cholera epidemic and desperate shortages of food and water.
So rumors and threats circulate daily from members of the former regime's murderous militias and the Interahamwe, the armed youth wing of the government party. Together, they are considered most responsible for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis since April 6, a carnage fueled by venomous government radio broadcasts that demonized the Tutsis.
Their propaganda machine is in full swing again. Many refugees insist, for example, that the Tutsis caused the cholera epidemic by poisoning the water. And nearly all are convinced they will be mutilated or killed by the new regime if they go home.
"We've heard all the refugees (who went back) have no eyes anymore," 28-year-old Primitiv Mukandemzo warned outside the plastic-covered lean-to where her family sleeps on reed mats.
Frediana Mukamunana, 54, using her finger to slash in the air as she spoke, shouted: "They cut out the heart, the eyes and the intestines! And they put people in cars and burn them!"
"They will put us in houses and burn us," whispered 18-year-old Faustin Ntanshuti.
Told that the United Nations had announced the country was safe for returnees and that reporters had seen thousands of refugees walking home this week without problems, Josephin Mukamabano only laughed. "They surely are killing people after you leave," she said, tending a small cooking fire beside her grass-covered hut. "We are told the bodies are buried immediately so journalists can't see them."
Educated Rwandans are just as terrified. "They will kill all the intellectuals," said Alphonse Harerimana, a physician working at the Doctors Without Borders tent hospital for cholera cases. "Only the illiterate will survive."
Another Rwandan medical worker rushed up and interrupted. "I just heard that all the refugees who went back were killed," he said excitedly. "People came and told us."
Soon after, a group of young Rwandan men shouted down a reporter who explained to several old women that it was safe to return. "You're telling lies!" they shouted angrily. "It is not possible. Those who went yesterday were all killed yesterday!"
But Wilkinson of the U.N. refugee agency said not a single returnee is known to have been injured or killed by soldiers of the new regime. "All the indications we've got is things are very stable there and the people who have gone back have had absolutely no problems," he said.
He criticized the militia members and others in the camps for spreading rumors and said the United Nations is fighting "a battle for the hearts and minds" of the refugees. So far, he added, the militias are winning. "They are obviously very, very active in trying to persuade and coerce people not to go back," he said. "These people have become pawns in a major game of Russian roulette, with hundreds of thousands of lives at stake. It's as cynical as you can get."
But criticism also has grown of the U.N. refugee agency. Although it announced Friday that it would encourage and help refugees to return, it has not used radio, sound trucks or any other means to tell those in the disease-ridden camps that it is safe to leave. Wilkinson said the United Nations is so far relying on "word of mouth" instead. "It works in Africa," he said.
And although many refugees insist they will go back only if accompanied by U.N. officials, Wilkinson said the agency has no immediate plans to transport or provide protection for returning refugees.
Conditions here remain miserable. Doctors counted about 600 decomposing bodies of apparent cholera victims in the camp Tuesday morning before burial trucks could pick them up.
In some cases, the corpses lay only a few feet from where vegetable sellers sat calmly displaying their produce on tattered bits of plastic. A few other bodies, abandoned by the road, were run over by passing cars.