Frightened Rwandan refugees emerge from jungle

BIARO, Zaire (AP) –Thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees emerged from hiding in the jungles of eastern Zaire on Monday, their hunger more powerful than their fear of the mobs that drove them from squalid camps a week ago.
Aid workers estimated seeing 5,000-10,000 refugees, frightened, exhausted, and desperate for food, heading toward an abandoned camp at Biaro, south of Kisangani. Until Monday, international officials could account for only a few hundred of the at least 80,000 missing refugees.
U.N. workers worked to bring in tons of food for the Rwandans, while U.N. officials argued for the refugees’ immediate airlift back to Rwanda — something Zaire’s rebels have repeatedly blocked.
“This is the only way. These people have to go home,” said Filippo Grandi of the U.N. refugee agency.
“If I could go only today,” refugee Sosthene Ntirampaga said as he emerged from a week of hiding and wandered into the camp.
Refugee camps housing about 80,000 Rwandans near Kisangani were found deserted last week, five days after rebels fighting to oust President Mobutu Sese Seko sealed the area to foreign aid workers and journalists.
The refugees are among 1 million Rwandan Hutus who fled into Zaire to escape retaliation for the nation’s 1994 genocide of a half-million Tutsis. Most have returned; the Rwandans who remained in central Zaire camps increasingly were at odds with local Zairians and rebels, many of them Zairian Tutsis.
Last week, Zairian mobs allegedly attacked the camps with machetes, blaming the refugees for the murders of six villagers. The mobs killed hundreds, and rebels opened fire on at least one camp, the refugees say.
“First the Zairians attacked us,” said the refugee, Ntirampaga. “They looted food, medicines, everything … Then we heard the gunshots and fled.”
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson, flew to Zaire Monday to talk with Mobutu and rebel leader Laurent Kabila about ending their 7-month-old war. Kabila’s forces have overrun more than half of Zaire in their battle to topple Mobutu.
Richardson said in the capital, Kinshasa, that he would try to improve refugees’ conditions: “There have been reports of human rights abuse and massacres — this must end.”
The scene at Biaro gave credence to the stories of violence.
In a makeshift hospital tent a woman lay, barely alive, with a machete wound to the head. Behind the hospital were a dozen corpses — mostly women and children, some with machete wounds.
A lone doctor tried to care for scores of wounded and sick people pouring into the camp.
Kabila insisted on Sunday that his troops had not harmed the refugees. But U.N. officials said the rebels stormed a pediatric hospital in eastern Zaire on Saturday and left with 50 children.
“These were children, not even teen-agers. They had nothing to do with the fighting or the genocide in Rwanda. They were of no military interest,” Roger Botralahy, who runs the UNICEF office in Bukavu, 20 miles south of the pediatric hospital, said Monday.
The roughly 20 rebels beat three hospital workers and berated others for “caring for our enemies,” the humanitarian group Save The Children said.
The children, many of them malnourished, had been rescued by Save the Children in November and December. They were lost or abandoned during a refugee flight from camps along the Rwandan border.
The United Nations estimates there are about 300,000 refugees left in Zaire, most from neighboring Rwanda and Burundi. The United Nations had planned to airlift of up to 80,000 of them from the Kisangani area to Rwanda — a plan rebels had said would interfere with troop movements and could spread disease.
In talks with U.N. and European Union officials Sunday in Kisangani, Kabila abruptly gave the United Nations two months to track down and evacuate the refugees, Grandi of the U.N. refugee agency said.
It was not clear what would happen to the refugees if they remained in Zaire after the 60 days, the countdown for which starts May 1.