Refugee aid in Rwanda overwhelmed by influx U.N. officer sees plan fall apart amid return of 500,000


KIGALI, Rwanda -- MacKay Wolff's job for the last year or so was like a host's ultimate nightmare -- planning a party when you don't know when the guests are going to arrive or how many of them there are going to be.

As senior program officer in Rwanda for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), this Baltimore native -- a 1975 Gilman graduate -- has been responsible for planning for the return of Rwandan refugees who fled to neighboring countries in 1994.

Wolff has plenty of experience. He's worked in some of the world's unhappiest places -- the West Bank, Turkey, Bosnia and Iraq -- for more than a decade.

At the moment, he is one of the key members of a huge international aid industry -- "an ecosystem," he calls it -- that is currently swarming over this small, landlocked central African nation that has been the focus of the world's attention as 500,000 refugees returned in the last week.

From his corner office in the bullet-scarred UNHCR headquarters building, Wolff has a beautiful view of Kigali that rises and falls over several green hills. But it does not give him a view into the future.

He can show you the report he prepared in August 1995 after the Zairians expelled 15,000 refugees and said they would throw all the rest out by the end of that year -- about a million more people.

The report's title page says that the plan can handle 10,000 refugees returning per day.

"What we were saying was that based on the amount of support we could get from the international community -- and people were understandably reluctant to give to something

that hadn't happened yet and might not happen -- that if we got more than 10,000 coming into Rwanda in a day, we would be in trouble," Wolff said.

Zaire did not end up immediately expelling the refugees, but rebels fighting the Zairian government did the job by defeating the Rwandan Hutu militants who had control of the refugee camps, triggering the mass return now under way.

"From what I understand, at the height of the influx last weekend, there were times we were getting 10,000 people a minute," Wolff said.

"What could we do? The best thing was just to get out of the way."

The original plan was thrown out the window, and Wolff went back to work, sitting in his office, on the phone, doing budgets, working 16-hour days.

He is something of a budgetary traffic cop for UNHCR here, getting the money from the United Nations and distributing it to the various aid groups on the ground.

One of history's great migrations was under way, but he didn't get close to the refugees.

"I never even got to see the refugees return," he said.

"I've only seen the videotapes our people took out in the field."

Wolff said that the huge numbers meant UNHCR was forced to work around the margins of the influx, dealing with what is referred to as "the vulnerable population" -- the sick and lame, the elderly, lost children and the like -- getting them assistance and transportation.

Such people absorbed the entire capacity that he designed with the 10,000-refugee-per-day plan.

"I still think we have been able to make a difference, to help ensure, as our charter says, that the refugees returned safely and in dignity," he said.

A conflict has arisen between the Rwandan government and the foreign aid agencies trying to help the refugees coming home to Rwanda.

The aid agencies want to organize the refugees and their return to their villages. The government wants the people moved immediately to their home communes in a way that some aid officials complain is harmful because many are injured or crippled.

Wolff refused to talk about that conflict.

After nearly 15 years in this type of work, the past seven with the United Nations, the 39-year-old Baltimorean believes that organizations like his are always working around the margins.

"There is no way even those of us who live and work in a place like this can affect the various elements -- ethnic, historical, familial, all of those things -- that really make a society tick," he said.

"From a distance we may appear to be fundamentally changing things, but we are really only having a limited influence that we hope does make a difference in peoples' lives."

It was the book "Don Quixote" that got Wolff interested in this type of international aid work.

A teacher at Oberlin College told him that to fully appreciate the book, he needed to learn Arabic or Hebrew.

He began to study Arabic, becoming fluent during a year at the American University in Cairo.

Smitten with the Middle East, he took a job with Catholic Relief Services working on the West Bank and Gaza Strip following his graduation from Oberlin in 1979.

After a few years, he returned to the United States and got a master's degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Wolff then joined the United Nations as a human-rights observer on the West Bank in 1989 for what turned out to be the height of the intifada, the Palestinian rebellion against Israeli rule. He spent a busy year monitoring conflicts between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian youth.

Subsequent assignments took him to Ankara, Turkey; Baghdad in Iraq just after the Persian Gulf war; and Sarajevo.

He came to Kigali two years ago.

"I think people in positions like mine are somewhere in between the idealists, people like Amnesty International who are sitting in London telling us what things should be like, and the realists who just say you can't really change anything," Wolff said.

"We need the idealists to remind us what we should be striving for, but we always have to maintain an equilibrium between the ideal and the real."

For Wolff, here, the ideal was 10,000 refugees per day.

The real turned out to be something quite different.

Pub Date: 11/23/96

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