From ........ U.S.NEWS & WORLD REPORT

December 2, 1996


Humanitarian aid created the crisis in Zaire. Fighting ended it

When 26-year-old François Ndahiro tried to sneak back into Rwanda a month ago, three Hutu thugs caught him and smashed his right leg with sticks. Unable to walk, the skin on his leg swollen to the bursting point, Ndahiro could only sit and watch last week as 600,000 of his fellow Hutu refugees, suddenly freed from a brutal reign of terror within the very refugee camps that were set up to save them two years ago, streamed back to their homes a short, 15-mile walk across the Zaire-Rwanda border.

The surge of returning refugees caught the world almost completely by surprise. Only a week before, Canada was preparing to lead a 10,000-troop multinational force, including as many as 4,000 U.S. soldiers and airmen, to come to the rescue of the refugees. Driven from the camps by a flare-up of local fighting by Zairian rebels, a million Hutus who had fled Rwanda in 1994 were on the move again, deep into the Zairian jungle and on the brink of starvation.

Yet just days later, relief officials suddenly became aware that what one called a "human tidal wave" had reversed direction. Thousands were crossing the border into Rwanda every hour, the largest movement of refugees ever in so short a time.

Evidently, it was not fear of what they would face at home, but fear of what the roughly 40,000 Hutu extremists who held power in the camps would do to them if they tried to leave, that had held them in Zaire. Humanitarian aid meant to help the innocent victims of civil war instead had only prolonged a crisis. "The rebels," admitted Ray Wilkinson of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, "have sorted out the problem." A few hundred U.S. troops may still go to the region to provide logistic support for aid shipments, but a major military force is no longer envisioned.

Road to hell. Aid workers say the painful lesson from Zaire has forced them to rethink the simple "humanitarian imperative" of helping everyone, no questions asked. "This is the crisis that made it abundantly clear that civilians have become weapons in themselves," says Nan Borton, director of the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. "We are often as much a cause of pain as a source of relief," acknowledges Mike McDonagh, director of the aid group Concern International. "It's time to grow up."

The refugee assistance effort in Zaire began with all the right motives. Massive media coverage of the plight of the fleeing Hutus created an outpouring of sympathy. But the camps quickly came under the control of the génocidaires--the Hutu extremists of the ex-Rwandan Army and a Rwanda militia, who had fled their homeland with the hundreds of thousands of innocent Hutus.

It is now clear that the génocidaires did more than just take advantage of the presence of so many refugees to secure a base of operations and a supply of free food; they intentionally created this haven for themselves by herding civilians out of Rwanda with them. "The refugee crisis was, at least in part, deliberately caused," concluded a U.S. Army study.

Documents found last week in the abandoned camps show that they were run as virtual military bases by the extremists. More than 200 extremist Hutu political leaders hunkered down in the camps called the shots. Food meant for civilians was diverted to the military forces. Refugees employed by relief agencies were forced to surrender much of their income to help in training soldiers. Spies kept lists of Rwandan sympathizers to be purged. And the ex-Army had plans to use the camps as a staging area to launch an invasion of Rwanda.

The worst of the lot were the 15,000 thugs known as the interahamwe, members of a Rwandan militia heavily implicated in the machete murders and other acts of genocide in 1994. They acted as "enforcers" in the camps, collecting "taxes" from the refugees, controlling distribution of food and recruiting young males for their ranks. François Ndahiro was apparently captured by relatively easygoing militiamen: Many of the refugees who tried to leave were executed.

The interahamwe regularly threatened relief workers, too. "They stopped every attempt to conduct a proper census, which allowed them to cream off large amounts of excess food and other supplies," says Allison Campbell, a spokeswoman for CARE International. The international community was spending $1.5 to $2 million a day on the relief effort.

In November 1994, U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali pleaded with the international community to send a force of 10,000 troops to break the hold of the Hutu militias over their own people in the camps--a proposal that went nowhere. Some relief groups like CARE and Médecins sans Frontières pulled out. But others stayed.

It was no surprise when the Hutu militants in the camps began to stage attacks against their rival Tutsis in both Rwanda and Zaire, with some help from poorly disciplined Zairian Army forces. Their savagery fit the pattern, too. In late October a gang of Hutus raided the home of Elizabeth Wimana, near one of the biggest refugee camps. They stabbed her in the chest, abducted her 4-year-old son, Philippe, and butchered six other family members. Others nearby reported similar atrocities.

The turnabout came this fall when the local Tutsi rebels--with backing from the Rwandan Army--struck back hard at their Hutu and Zairian Army persecutors. In two days of fighting, the rebels crushed the base inside the main refugee camp at Mugunga, driving the interahamwe into the Zairian bush.

Getting serious. It was not entirely a coincidence, though, that the end finally came only after the world was mobilizing to send a sizable military force into the area. Rwanda, fearing that the arrival of a multinational force would only further shield the interahamwe from retaliation, moved to lance the boil. "We have an enemy responsible for genocide which has been launching guerrilla attacks from the refugee camps," explained Rwanda's defense minister, Paul Kagame. "If you hit me in the face, I will hit back, and it may not be in your face."

But it is unrealistic to count on such serendipity saving the day in the next crisis--which is why relief groups are trying new tactics, such as distributing food through women, to keep men from using the food as a bargaining chip. At a White House meeting with National Security Adviser Anthony Lake last week, relief officials recommended against airdrops of military rations to scattered refugees in Zaire for fear that the rations would become just that--food for troops.

Pulling out. Pushed by CARE International and other major groups, the aid community is trying to agree on a binding protocol to ensure that relief does not become an engine for conflict. The aim is to get the many, sometimes competing aid groups to pledge that they will all pull out if aid is doing more harm than good or if relief workers are threatened. "The humanitarian program has been confused as a solution," says Nan Borton of the OFDA. "It's only a way to buy time for a political or military solution."

The swift resolution of the refugee crisis in Zaire could obscure the need for such changes. But the next test case may not be far away. Fighting among ethnic and political foes continues in eastern Zaire, which is growing increasingly unstable. Hutu rebels on the defensive in Zaire have fled into Burundi, where U.N. workers found the bodies of 300 refugees massacred in a church. And Rwanda itself is a sea of tensions, as refugees return to homes occupied by strangers and face scrutiny about whether they contributed to the 1994 genocide.

Some officials say the refugees' return finally gives world powers a chance to materially improve Rwanda's prospects. Instead of providing food, blankets and other forms of traditional aid for the refugees--which the Rwandans say they don't really need--relief organizations could spend money on housing, schools and other resettlement efforts. But with rampant anxiety and mistrust, the window of opportunity is limited. When one Hutu family returned to its home last week, the Tutsis who were living in it summoned Rwandan Army troops to settle who would get to stay on the property. The alarmed Hutus fled, and the wife was accidentally killed by an Army soldier firing a warning shot. It won't take too many such accidents to turn a happy homecoming into another round of national mourning.