Associated Press

April 15, 1997

Rwandan Repatriation May Be Delayed

KASESE, Zaire (AP) -- Comatose with malaria, the emaciated men and women lie on the ground of a makeshift hospital. Hundreds of flies bite their limp bodies while intravenous drips of nutrition keep them alive.

In just a few days, the Rwandans in this jungle refugee camp are supposed to start being evacuated to a nearby transit center, where they'll be screened and registered for a long-awaited trip home.

But aid workers say the repatriation plan is being frustrated by Zairian rebels, who by Tuesday still had not given the United Nations permission to set up the transit center. That means healthy refugees must wait longer.

At the same time, rebels want all the refugees out quickly. And that means the thousands of sick may not get well enough to make the trip. Already, many have died.

``For us, the death toll is not dropping. We've got an average of 10 deaths a day,'' said Dutch nurse Danny Decamper, 27, already sweating in the jungle's morning heat. ``It will take time before we can stabilize these people and prepare them for repatriation.''

He and other aid workers are running against time, struggling to heal thousands of sick refugees while overcoming the bureaucratic tangle of sending as many as 100,000 people back to Rwanda.

The U.N. refugee agency needs permission from rebel and civil authorities to set up the transit center at Lula, just 15 miles from the camps. From there, 2,000 people a day will be flown aboard three U.N. aircraft to Goma, on the Rwandan border.

``We're afraid we may be losing momentum,'' said Paul Stromberg, a U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman. ``The refugees are sick, some are dying, and they want to go home. And we're still waiting for permission to carry out the operation.''

He said the first flight, scheduled for this week, will probably have to be postponed.

The 100,000 Hutus in the Kasese camp and another nearby are among the last Rwandan refugees in central Africa. Aid workers estimate that another 100,000 are still missing in Zaire. Hundreds of thousands of Hutus fled Rwanda in 1994 after the Hutu government-sanctioned genocide of a half-million Tutsis.

Many of the Hutus, especially the defeated government troops and Hutu extremist militiamen, had refused to return, fearing retribution from the new Tutsi-run government.

For nearly three years, the refugees lived in camps near the Rwandan border in eastern Zaire -- many of them civilians held hostage by Hutu militias who wanted them as human shields. In October, Zairian rebels raided the camps, driving the refugees west and freeing them of the militias.

Even so, the refugees were still cornered, by rebels on one hand and lack of food and medicine on the other. Defeated by the filth and death-stench of the camps, the refugees became the most vociferous in asking to be sent home.

``If only someone would take me home, even today,'' said Sosthene Ntirampaga, supervising the Tuesday morning distribution of food at the Kasese camp.

Rebels, fighting to oust President Mobutu Sese Seko, want the refugees out immediately so they won't have time to settle. The camps are just 20 miles from Kisangani, and rebel authorities apparently worry the refugees might bring instability to Zaire's third-largest city.

The Rwandan authorities have agreed in principle to the refugees' coming home, but insist on screening the refugees to make sure that they do not include former government troops or Interahamwe militia.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said the Rwandan authorities, citing security concerns, still hadn't given permission for the refugees to enter the country. Rwandan officials denied they were holding up the repatriation.

``There is a wrong assumption,'' said Ephrain Kabaija, the chairman of the Rwandan government's repatriation commission. ``We want everybody back. There is no single Rwandan who we don't want. ... We have no exception.''

So while governments argue, the refugees wait in the makeshift camps south of Kisingani, clusters of palm-tree huts along the road and railroad track that cuts through the thick tropical forest.

Around the camp, dead bodies are wrapped head-to-toe in gray blankets. Red Cross workers, wearing face masks and rubber gloves, spray the decomposing bodies with chlorine before taking them to makeshift burial sites.

Thanks to food and relief supplies, aid workers say, the death rate in the camps has dropped significantly in the past week. Stromberg said there were 55 deaths on Monday, down from 180 10 days ago.

Cholera -- which has killed nine of the estimated 160 people sick with it -- was being controlled. But aid workers said malaria and dysentery were still serious problems.