Associated Press

April 20, 1997

Rwanda Refugees Eager To Return

KASESE, Zaire (AP) -- Waiting for rebels and aid workers to agree on plans to evacuate his refugee camp, Jackson Twahirwa could do little more Sunday than stand in the mud watching his pregnant wife die of malaria.

For Twahirwa and thousands of other Rwandans in Zaire's squalid refugee camps, time can be counted in the bodies stacked each day outside their tents.

The 31-year-old Rwandan refugee buried his firstborn son in the camp two months ago. The five-month march through equatorial forests that brought 100,000 Rwandans to the camps near Kisangani was just too much for the 1-year-old.

About 60 people die in the camps each day, the victims of malaria, dysentery, pneumonia and cholera.

Faced with spreading cholera and scarce food, the exhausted refugees say they want to go home.

``To go back to Rwanda is a dream,'' Twahirwa said. ``I don't know how safe it is to return, but it can't be worse than this.''

The U.N. refugee agency had hoped to start repatriating the refugees on Friday; now, it doesn't know when it will be able to begin.

Each time the United Nations geared up to begin a massive airlift of refugees from the Kisangani area, the rebels would present a new obstacle. They complained that refugees might spread disease; commandeered aid workers' jet fuel; and claimed the airlift would interfere with their own flights.

On Sunday, a cholera expert from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Arthur Marx, arrived to assess the cholera outbreak in the camps, in hopes of convincing the rebels that it was safe to move the refugees.

The U.N. refugee agency wants to fly the refugees to the border town of Goma, and send them on to Rwanda by truck. But the rebels want them to go all the way on trucks, and say the United Nations should fix the rough 375-mile road from Kisangani to the border town of Bukavu.

``There is still debate about repatriation, about when and where it should take place,'' said Paul Stromberg, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

In rebel-held Lubumbashi, Zaire's second-largest city, hundreds of new recruits boarded planes Sunday for training to prepare them for a rebel assault on Kisangani, the capital. The rebels have overrun more than half the country, and now claim to be only 180 miles from the capital.

The Rwandan Hutus at the camps in central Zaire are among more than 1 million Rwandans who fled their country in 1994, fearing retaliation for their country's slaughter of a half-million minority Tutsis.

The refugee camps, stretching for miles along a narrow, dirt road south of Kisangani, can seem more like death camps.

On Sunday, the first sunny day after torrential rains, at least 30 new bodies were neatly lined up, sprayed with white powder, outside the makeshift hospital at Twahirwa's Kasese camp.

``It's really, really bad,'' a nurse from Doctors Without Borders said, speaking on the condition her name was withheld. ``It's getting impossible to work. ... Local staff who are helping us are becoming too resigned. They don't show up for work anymore.''

A crew of Zairian Red Cross workers who did turn up cruised in a blue pickup truck, picking bodies from the mud for burial in mass graves in the jungle.

In the hospital compound, surrounded by an orange plastic fence, a boy lay barely alive on the ground under a scorching sun, breathing fast, his fist clutched next to his mouth, hundreds of flies already landing on his skinny body.

A half-hour later, he was dead, and bound for the mass grave.

Conditions leave little hope of survival for those without family to help.

``There is not much solidarity anymore. I'm here to look after my wife. I can't find time to help the others,'' said Twahirwa, the refugee. ``Everybody looks after his own family.''