U.N. Braced for Refugees, But Intimidators Spoiled Plan

News and Press Release
Originally published
By CHRIS TOMLINSON Associated Press Writer
KIGALI, Rwanda (AP) _ Anticipating that thousands of Rwandan refugees would continue their voluntary return home Saturday, U.N. agencies mobilized 100 trucks and relief workers. But intimidators in the camps in neighboring Burundi sabotaged the operation during the night.

More than 1,800 refugees from the Magara camp in northern Burundi returned home voluntarily Friday, and an estimated 4,000 more said they were interested in putting an end to their two years in exile.

But at first light Saturday, only a handful had showed up at the transit camp in Rwanda.

''Clearly something happened last night to convince these people not to return today,'' said Paul Stromberg, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

''The momentum has been lost. Now we are going to have to start again from zero.''

Stromberg said intimidation is common in camps housing Rwandan Hutu refugees, and once repatriation begins to gain momentum, camp leaders quash it.

At the urging of the leaders, many of whom are extremist Hutus associated with the former Rwandan government that organized the massacre of at least half a million people in 1994, the refugees demanded proof that those who have returned are safe, he said.

''But clearly this is a ploy by some people in the camps to keep the refugees from returning home,'' Stromberg said.

More than 60,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees live in two camps in northern Burundi where they fled in mid-1994 following the genocidal slaughter sponsored by a Hutu-dominated government. Most of the victims were Tutsis.

The refugees fear retaliation from the Rwandan government that is now controlled by Tutsis.

But fears that the new Tutsi-dominated military government in Burundi may resume forced expulsions had convinced many refugees to return home voluntarily.

The refugees now seem caught between camp leaders who need them as a power base and a Burundian government which says they must go home.

Stromberg said the Burundian government has promised to separate those refugees opposing repatriation from the others. But identifying the intimidators is difficult.

Pierre Buyoya, the new army-backed leader in Burundi, has assured refugees his government will not force them back to Rwanda. But he did say they had to go home sometime.

Buyoya was to meet local officials in Ngozi, Burundi, Sunday, just 1 kilometer (mile) from the Magara camp where 53,000 Rwandan refugees live.

Stromberg said Buyoya was not expected to visit the camp.

Meanwhile, the 2,500 refugees who have so far arrived in Rwanda since Thursday were preparing to return to their villages Saturday.

They follow in the footsteps of 16,000 refugees forced back two weeks ago. No significant problems with the returnees have been reported.

Stromberg said the suspension of non-essential services in the camps in Burundi last Wednesday was designed to encourage refugees to go home and to eliminate jobs presently held by refugees.

The international community spends more than dlrs 2 million a day on the 1.6 million Rwandan refugees in Burundi, Zaire and Tanzania.

In June, U.S. officials said they would stop funding the camps and would use the money instead to improve conditions in Rwanda to attract the refugees back.

The proposal was welcomed by Rwandan officials, and details are under discussion.