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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

An Uneasy Calm in Zaire's Camps

GOMA, Zaire -- Peace has come suddenly, unexpectedly to the Rwandan refugee camps that blight the verdant landscape of eastern Zaire.


It came, apparently, from the blazing guns of Zairian soldiers, from the arrest and expulsion to Rwanda of troublemakers and from subtle changes in the way aid agencies manage the camps.


Acts of brutality and intimidation so common two months ago are almost unheard of now. Aid workers no longer are menaced by the defeated Hutu soldiers and extremist militiamen blamed for much of the genocidal bloodbath in neighboring Rwanda.


While welcome, the tranquility came so swiftly that it has left some uneasy about what changes it might signal.


"For the last month and a half it has been pretty quiet, too quiet I would say," said Joel Boutroue, the head of the UN High Commission for Refugees office in Goma.


Rwanda's former political and military leaders, accused of orchestrating the killing of an estimated 500,000 people, have too much at stake to watch the refugees, their only bargaining chip, drift home in increasing numbers.


Convincing the approximately 750,000 refugees around Goma to stay remains key to the exiled former regime's strategy to destabilize the new government in Kigali.


For months, former soldiers and militiamen conducted a campaign of terror in the camps to keep refugees in Zaire. Some who attempted to return home or who even advocated going back to Rwanda were brutally killed.


Early in November, 16 aid agencies threatened to withdraw from the camps unless there was an immediate effort to improve security. UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali recommended sending troops to restore order. The Security Council balked, but expressed alarm at the tensions. Then Zairian troops killed at least 15 refugees on Nov. 25 at Kitale camp, north of Goma. The next day, Zairian authorities expelled 31 Hutu officials of the former government suspected of being behind the violence and intimidation in the camps. All of them were turned over to Rwandan authorities at the border and imprisoned.


Aid workers said the Zairian gunfire and expulsions sent a chilling message to militiamen and former soldiers. "The Kitale shooting ... dampened the enthusiasm of the young men and bandits and diminished any kind of authority they had on the population," said Boutroue.


Red Cross spokesman Normand Lessard said that at Kibumba camp aid workers were now giving food directly to families. Boutroue said the UN was taking steps aimed at diminishing the roles of former soldiers and militiamen.


The exiled government's emerging strategy now seems aimed at causing unrest inside Rwanda to undermine the new government and convince refugees it is too dangerous to return.


Major General Guy Tousignant, the UN military commander in Kigali, said there was strong reason to believe former soldiers have begun a well-planned insurgency operation into Rwanda.


Matthieu Ngirumpatse, president of the former ruling party, denied the government in exile was preparing a military campaign. And Rwanda's defeated army is considered too weak to mount a serious threat to retake the country. But he suggested the exiled leaders could have more limited military goals.


"If the refugees are strong enough to cross the border and control two districts, they (the government) will forget about that court," he added, referring to the international war crimes tribunal. "They will talk about negotiations."