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U.N. Faces Long Haul on Rwanda Refugees : Africa: Zaire has ceded control of repatriations. Getting Hutus to go home peacefully may take years.

August 26, 1995|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GOMA, Zaire — The United Nations regained jurisdiction over Rwanda's 1.2 million refugees Friday, but its plan to resume sending them home took off sluggishly.

Even allowing time to smooth the rough spots, this week's sound and fury over resettlement of exiled ethnic Hutus has served to remind the nations of this Central African region, and the developed world, that peaceful resolution of this predicament could take a year--more likely years.

Here in Goma, along the Zaire-Rwanda border, about 720,000 refugees have been dug in for 14 months. They have built virtual cities from these onetime death camps--with outdoor television-movie theaters, three-story hotels and all kinds of shops, restaurants and nightclubs.

They live mostly on relief rations and barter; humanitarian groups tend to their needs, medical, spiritual and otherwise.

On Friday, about 0.03% of the camps' population--220 women, children and older men--stepped forward, willing to give up this bland but familiar existence for the uncertainty of returning to a country where they have been quarreling, often catastrophically, with rival Tutsis for generations.

U.N. officials said that, as the repatriation program gathers steam, as many as 5,000 Hutus a day could be trucked to the border from the five huge city-camps here.

That is, if 5,000 a day could be persuaded to go.

Returnees are not likely to come from the thousands of Hutus, mostly young men, who say they can never go home--except as an invading army.

That is because they, or members of their families, joined in last year's ethnic slaughter of unarmed Tutsis. For them, going home means going to the prisons that today's Tutsi government already has overfilled with suspected mass murderers.

The plight of Rwanda and its refugees once again captured worldwide interest this week, when the government of Zaire disrupted the status quo. It sent soldiers into the camps and started forcing Hutus home at gunpoint. In four days, about 4,500 were expelled from Goma. Of these, a reported 30 to 60 were immediately arrested as suspected killers.

The United Nations loudly protested and persuaded Zaire to remove its soldiers. In turn, the United Nations promised to resume its voluntary repatriation efforts, which previously had only modest results.

This new U.N. repatriation started Friday, albeit slowly.

South of Goma, in the vicinity of Bukavu, where about 352,000 refugees have been digging in for a year, at least 3,000 "presented themselves for repatriation" to U.N. officials. But the United Nations had no trucks on hand to move them.

Still farther south in the vicinity of Uvira, the problems were entirely different. There, about 120,000 Hutu refugees have set up camps. But more than half are exiles not from Rwanda but from its southern neighbor, Burundi, a country where Hutus and Tutsis are fighting a low-grade civil war.

When these Uvira refugees heard they might be forcibly returned, more than 80,000 stampeded into the hills without food or water. On Friday, U.N. workers fanned out into the rain forests and banana plantations with loudspeakers, urging the refugees back into their camps. They were told it was safe to return to camp and none would be sent home involuntarily.

Relief officials said that, as of late Friday, more than half had wandered back out of the hills.

*

U.N. officials used the occasion of this week's refugee movements to scold the nations of the region--Rwanda, Burundi and Zaire--as well as the developed countries that once pledged to support the refugees and the reconciliation of the warring peoples here.

The United Nations chided all, saying:

* The home countries have not created the stability or provided the assurances of safety necessary to attract their countrymen back.

* The host countries of this region, chiefly Zaire, are running out of patience. International law protecting refugees' rights has become an afterthought.

* The donor countries have progressively lost interest in the troubled people of this area, reducing aid to the point that refugees are approaching malnutrition.

"The important thing to remember is that none of these countries has lived up to its commitments," said Peter Kessler, spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

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