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Commissioner finds refugees in 'deplorable' conditions

refugees February 3, 1997
Web posted at: 11:30 p.m. EST (0430 GMT)

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KINSHASA, Zaire (CNN) -- Despite widespread claims that most refugees have left eastern Zaire, the European Union's Humanitarian Affairs Commissioner said Monday that nearly 500,000 refugees remain in "deplorable" conditions.

"I met there people who allegedly don't exist, people who couldn't be picked up on the most powerful radar equipment," Emma Bonino said after four days in Zaire.

Most of them are Hutus who escaped into Zaire in 1994, fearing reprisals for the massacres by Hutu extremists of more than 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

The United States, France and other nations canceled plans in December to send a force into the region, after more than a million Rwandan Hutu refugees returned home from camps in Zaire and Tanzania.

Indeed, Rwanda's ambassador Gideon Kayinamura told the United Nations Monday that there are no more Rwandan refugees in Zaire. He said that those who remain are former Rwandan soldiers who have joined Zaire's army, and that humanitarian agencies in the past have "fallen into a trap" by providing assistance that feeds soldiers rather than refugees.


Refugees are ill and malnourished

But Bonino says she saw 200,000 refugees at the camps of Tingi-Tingi, Shabunda and Amisi in eastern Zaire. She estimates there are another 200,000 to 300,000 unaccounted for. And she says the refugees she saw were not soldiers, and they were too ill and malnourished to go anywhere.

She said that at Tingi-Tingi, a camp where about 100,000 refugees from Rwanda and Burundi are trapped by the war between rebels and the government of Zaire, conditions are "below the standards of human dignity."

"There's hardly any water. The lack of food seems to be the main cause of death," she said. "This is something that the international community really has to be ashamed of."

According to the group Medicine Without Frontiers, which runs a feeding center at the camp, 400 children have died in the past five weeks. Bonino says the refugees are getting only 600 calories a day, barely enough for survival.

The war, bad roads and small airstrips make it difficult for the U.N. to bring more food.


'U.N.'s credibility at stake'

Bonino said a multinational military force is needed to open routes for aid and protect relief workers. Last month, three Spanish medical workers were killed in Rwanda, apparently by Hutu extremists.

She said the international community, and the United Nations in particular, must take the lead in making it possible for the remaining refugees to return home.

"The U.N.'s credibility is really at stake," Bonino said.

Meanwhile, anti-government rebels may have seized the port city of Kalemi in the mineral-rich Shaba region on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.

A senior defense ministry for the Zairean government said Kalemi had been surrounded by rebels preparing to launch further assaults on the southern province.

The ministry of defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the army was struggling to hold on to Kalemi.

Minister of Defense General Likulia Bolongo admitted that the army was desperate for help, and called on boys between the ages of 15 and 18 to volunteer.

Correspondent Catherine Bond contributed to this report.


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