Rwanda, aid agencies toil at cross-purposes Mistrust abounds; government hurries refugees to villages


KIGALI, Rwanda -- There are two major conflicts going on here: One between Rwanda's government and the Hutu refugees returning from Zaire, but the second is between the government and foreign aid agencies.

They confront each other in aid centers where the agencies are working to feed, heal and transport the half million Hutus streaming home from neighboring Zaire.

A Red Cross truck pulls up in front of the Nkamira transit center to deliver injured refugees for medical attention and a night's rest, while aid workers make arrangements for getting them to their home villages. But Rwandan government officials, backed by armed soldiers, refuse to let the truck enter.

A United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees truck delivering a load of lost children receives similar treatment.

In one incident, government vehicles pick up several hundred "vulnerables" -- injured refugees staying in the Nkamira center -- and take them further into Rwanda.

"We don't know where they went," said a UNHCR official working at the camp who asked not to be identified. "We're afraid it was a place that did not have proper facilities for them."

The conflict between the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan government and UNHCR and other agencies dates back two years, to when camps were established in Zaire for the refugees from Rwanda -- most of them Hutus.

Rwandan officials claim that those camps became a haven for those responsible for the 1994 genocide of 800,000 Tutsis. In those camps in Zaire were the radical Hutu military leaders who fled Rwanda and persuaded other Hutus to go with them, convincing them that they would be murdered if they returned home.

Documents discovered in what was clearly a military encampment in Zaire's Mugunga refugee camp support the suspicion that the Hutus in Zaire were organizing in the camps to retake Rwanda. The Rwandan government was meanwhile well aware that aid agencies were spending $1 million a day on the camps, money it felt would have been better used rebuilding the country.

But UNHCR officials say that in taking care of refugees, aid workers were only doing their job, and that enforcing security in the camps and separating the militants from the innocent population was not their responsibility.

The distrust that the Rwandan government had for the aid organizations has emerged more clearly as the refugees have returned home.

Trucks commandeered

The Red Cross, the World Food Program and the UNHCR have all reported that government authorities have commandeered the organizations' trucks to get refugees to their homes as quickly as possible, and thus prevent them from gathering in large numbers and creating new camps in Rwanda.

At the Nkamira transit center, the UNHCR official said the government's position was understandable. "Look, we know that the Rwandans have problems with the UNHCR, but they should not take it out on these people," the aid worker said.

"They don't want transit centers, they don't want anything that looks like a camp," said Sara Sywulaa, who works reuniting children and parents at the Nkamira center for Save the Children. "I can understand their position," she said. "But what they are doing is not helping their own people."

"We do not want camps," affirmed Wilson Gabo, director of Humanitarian Aid Coordination in the Rwandan government's Ministry of Rehabilitation. "Camps are the breeding grounds for criminals. We saw that in Zaire."

Gabo said that for the most part the government did not have problems with the private aid organizations, referred to as NGOs, for nongovernmental organizations.

"Mostly, they do a good job and we appreciate that," he said. "Sometimes it is true that the NGOs think they run the country, not the government. And sometimes they are too focused on their little issue, not on the big picture that we have to look at.

"For instance, some boy might cut his foot and they want to keep him back in a hospital and send his family on to their area, saying they will bring the child tomorrow. We say, no, let the boy go, too. He can walk. It is better he get to his commune and be treated there than be separated from this family."

Gabo confirmed that the government's main intention at this point is to get people back to their home villages as soon as possible, saying that is where they will start to rebuild their lives.

UNHCR officials will not comment publicly, since they must work with the government on a daily basis. But they privately complain about how the government has handled the return, arguing that the way they have tried to herd the returning Hutus back to their villages violates their basic human rights.

Government takes charge

The claim is that the Tutsi-led government, if it does not want to mete out punishment to the Hutus, at least wants them to know who is in charge now.

Fred Kasozi, who also works with Save the Children in Nkamira, had a more prosaic explanation for the rift between the government and the aid organizations.

"I was a civil servant in Uganda so I have been on both sides," he said. "If you work for an NGO, usually you are better paid, you dress better, you have a better car than you do if you work for the government. Yet the government people are supposed to be in charge. So it is not surprising that friction develops."

But others criticize the aid organizations for using crises like this one to build their status. At times the aid groups seemed to be trying to outdo one another in giving dire predictions on the refugees' status when their whereabouts in Zaire were unknown.

When the refugees walked into Rwanda in relatively good condition, many aid workers were certainly surprised.

The medical aid group Doctors Without Borders, for instance, gave an estimation that 12,000 refugees were dying each day when contact was lost with the refugees several weeks ago. After they emerged in basically good health, many Doctors Without Borders medical staff were still predicting an outbreak of cholera, the disease that killed 40,000 of these Hutus when they went into Zaire in 1994.

But after a few days, at one Doctors Without Borders medical tent set up along the refugees' path, the biggest problem was said to be blisters.

"These aid groups like to think that the refugees cannot do without them," said one western diplomat.

"They thought that if they were not getting help, these people would just sit down and die," the diplomat said. "Look, these are resourceful people who knew what they were doing when they were taking food in the camps, when they had to live without it, and when they decided to walk out."

Pub Date: 11/24/96

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