KATALI, Zaire — Food supplies to about 250,000 refugees at this sprawling Hades were suspended Friday and fatal gunfire broke out at another camp as tensions boiled over between destitute Rwandans and predatory Zairian soldiers.
Relief workers said they feared for their safety in this camp, 40 miles from the city of Goma. They halted trucks that were to carry 220 tons of food, compounding the despair of the men, women and children in this diseased, hungry and thirsty site, where each person can claim perhaps only a square yard of space in the dirt.
Officials of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees pleaded with Zaire to bring its soldiers under control. Relief workers and officials from the U.N. agency met into the night to decide whether aid convoys would resume this weekend. If not, the stacks of bodies that still line the road here are sure to grow higher by the day.
At the even larger Kibumba camp 15 miles south of here, a dozen soldiers in Zairian uniform opened fire Friday on a mob of refugees, killing one elderly man and wounding three others, including a 6-year-old, relief officials said. They said the soldiers were raiding the camp along the road, looting what few blankets and possessions the Rwandans had. Refugees surrounded them in a throng.
The soldiers shot their way out, spreading fear and anger through the 1 million or so ragtag remnants of the once-ruling Hutu majority of Rwanda now encamped in this region.
"The situation is getting really out of control," said Panos Moumtsis, spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency. And the only people who can bring order, he said, are Zairian officers.
"First of all, they need to discipline their soldiers," he said. "Instead of imposing order, they are the ones causing all the trouble. Security is very, very bad. Relief workers fear for their security."
That tensions would boil over seems inevitable given the volatile conditions here. Zairian soldiers are paid almost nothing and have long been accustomed to creating a salary by extorting money and goods from citizens, Goma residents said.
Added to that corrupt atmosphere has been the enticement of vulnerable refugees, with their money and meager possessions protected by nothing more than grass huts barely bigger than dog houses or frail tents of plastic sheeting. And consider that great territorial animosity already existed between Zairians and Rwandans along the border.
"They need food up there every day--we're very concerned," Jillian Hazell of the World Food Program in Goma said of conditions in Katali and surrounding areas.
Relief officials said they did not know how long refugees here could manage before hunger added to the miseries of disease and dehydration. Most relief workers stayed clear of the camp Friday.
A few journalists entered the area, but it was impossible to determine the extent of food stockpiles. One man displayed a bowl of grain, another a six-gallon jug of beer fermented from bananas. But a family of six lying in the uncovered frame of their tent had only the food that was boiling on a smoky campfire at that moment.
Squeezing among the multitudes at the camp, one could see a child eating sugar cane, a woman selling a small stalk of green bananas, a small mound of potatoes inside a tent. But there were many more empty pots than full ones; every third refugee interviewed said he had been accosted by soldiers in Zairian uniform.
"Always soldiers take money from people, and their food," said an agitated refugee wearing a sweaty, crusty T-shirt.
Jean Bakundufite, a 22-year-old student, said he was roughed up and robbed when he tried to sell the books he brought with him on his flight from Rwanda: "A soldier took one book. I asked him to give it back. He took another. I asked for it back. I was beaten."
Relief workers, refugees and Zairian soldiers all agreed the trouble is occurring close to the road, not in the heart of the camps. Deep among the throngs of refugees, soldiers fear to venture; after a dispute Thursday, one soldier was hacked to death by a mob wielding machetes. Relief officials said the soldier was trying to extort money from a refugee and was disarmed of two rifles. Both weapons remained in the hands of angry refugees Friday.
Meanwhile, a UNICEF worker reported he came across the bullet-riddled body of a refugee along the road Friday. Other refugees said the man resisted giving his motor scooter to a soldier and was shot.
These isolated shooting deaths, of course, continue to pale compared with the toll of Rwandans falling to disease--perhaps 700 on any given day, maybe 15,000 or more since the Rwandan Patriotic Front, dominated by minority Tutsis, won its sharp, bloody civil war last month.
As fast as collection trucks could scoop up bodies placed on the roadside Friday, more were lugged in to replace them. Some were wrapped in mats, others naked.
Then, quickly along the road and through the camps, dirty rugs were spread on the dirt as impromptu merchants resold the shoes of the dead.