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COLUMN ONE : Relief Now Rwanda's Nightmare : Distribution of aid has been commandeered by exiled Hutus amid rising theft and violence. Agencies threaten to leave out of fear or frustration over helping those accused of slaughtering Tutsis.

November 15, 1994|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GOMA, Zaire — Purple wildflowers and weeds now shroud the unmarked mass graves. The once grisly dump trucks cart mounds of garbage, not corpses.

Fresh water gushes from countless taps, and the rain-washed air is clean and clear.

Ambulances rush the sick to some of Africa's best-equipped hospitals, where they are treated by experts from around the world.

And at last count, 976 rickety bars and brothels, plus hundreds of shops and restaurants--not to mention a tiny thatch hotel named Amizero, or Hope--do a brisk trade in the giant refugee camps. There is even a volleyball court.

But three months after the world watched in horror as an estimated 50,000 Rwandan refugees collapsed and died in miserable camps on the bleak volcanic moonscape here, frustrated U.N. officials and relief workers say the largest, fastest international relief effort in history has become a new kind of nightmare.

Their concerns range from massive theft of donated food and other relief goods, to death threats against U.N. field officers and aid workers, to daily political assassinations and other murders in the three largest camps. They also cite major environmental damage to the adjoining National Park of Virunga, Africa's first wildlife park and a critical sanctuary of the rare mountain gorilla.

Perhaps most disturbing of all, humanitarian groups now openly acknowledge that the distribution of relief supplies to the estimated 750,000 Hutu refugees has come under the direct control of former Hutu government leaders and militias--the same extremists accused of systematically slaughtering at least half a million Tutsi civilians inside Rwanda before they fled here in July.

"The militias and the military totally control the camps," said Samantha Bolton, spokeswoman for Doctors Without Borders, one of the most active of the 85 aid groups here. "They control all aspects of camp life. And the refugees are prisoners, are hostages.

"It's outrageous," she said. "It's gotten to the point where we're aiding and abetting the perpetrators of genocide."

The ethical questions and misgivings have grown so severe that 16 international aid groups have publicly threatened to withdraw assistance from the refugee camps unless security is assured and the former Rwandan authorities and their henchmen are removed.

In a Nov. 3 statement, the groups--which include Doctors Without Borders, CARE, Oxfam and the American Refugee Committee--warned that "current relief operations are untenable" and working conditions are "unacceptably dangerous."

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which coordinates the relief effort, separately "expressed grave concern" about "the threatening presence and activities of former Rwandese army, militia and civilian leaders in the camps."

"It's becoming impossible to conduct the operation successfully," agreed Penelope Lewis, spokeswoman for the U.N. World Food Program, which provides most of the food for the refugees.

In response, U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said after a crisis meeting in Geneva last Tuesday that he will ask the Security Council to send peacekeeping troops to eastern Zaire to provide security.

But U.N. officials here say privately that they don't expect such help soon, if at all.

Several relief groups already have pulled out or sharply curtailed their aid.

CARE Canada, for example, evacuated all staff and officially withdrew on Oct. 30 from the largest camp, Katale, after receiving two anonymous letters that threatened five staff members by name.

CARE had been in charge of food distribution, sanitation, social services, road building and camp management at Katale since the first destitute refugees arrived in late July. The camp now has about 230,000 residents.

At first, with cholera raging and thousands dying daily, relief agencies gave little thought to who controlled the camps.

But Jean Lapierre, CARE's coordinator, said security quickly deteriorated as the emergency abated. And in late September, he said, fighting broke out between rival gangs known as the Bandits and the Scouts. Many of the Scouts had worked as an unofficial police force for CARE.

"It was really like the Bloods and the Crips, fighting for turf," Lapierre said. The two-day gang war ended with the disappearance, and presumed deaths, of 30 Scouts. At that point, the U.N. refugee agency and most private aid groups temporarily pulled out. All except CARE have returned.

But the Bandits' reign at Katale was short-lived. Leaders of the Hutu government in exile quickly asserted control in the camp and created a sinister security force called La Jeunesse, or The Youth, to enforce their edicts. Working in groups of 20, the young toughs patrol the camp's 11 zones.

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