Refugee camps widen in Zaire

The Associated Press

NGARA, Tanzania While worldwide sympathy focuses on the horror of Rwandan refugee camps in Zaire, the first camps created by the Rwandan holocaust are silently, steadily growing.

Some 100,000 Hutus have arrived in Tanzania since June, driven by a backlash to the slaughter of Rwanda's Tutsi minority.

And they're still coming on the average of 1,500 a day to camps that up to now have been well-managed and able to absorb the new arrivals joining a population now totaling 450,000 in the Kagera region on Rwanda's eastern border.

"The camps here have the reputation for being a bit of a hotel," said Carolyn Oxlee, spokeswoman for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Ngara. "At the moment it is a controlled situation."

But the fearful, sick and hungry, as many as 4,000 a day, are trudging in from Burundi and Rwanda daily to the camps near Ngara, Karagwe and Muleba.

Many of those arriving from Rwanda are driven by real or suspected reprisal killings by extremist Tutsis. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says an average of eight execution victims a day are floating down the Kagera River, which forms the Tanzania-Rwanda border.

"It's a collective concern here," said Dan Pruett, head of the Red Cross Federation in Tanzania. "We're looking


at 40,000 or more a month" in new arrivals, causing a strain on water supplies and health services.

U.N. and humanitarian officials worry they could be overwhelmed if the Hutu-Tutsi tension in Burundi blows up, reprisals in Rwanda continue and conditions in the camps in Zaire worsen, causing a new flood of refugees.

In one day in late April, 250,000 Hutus fearing Tutsi revenge poured across the border near Ngara. By June, the Tanzanian camps were called the world's largest, with 350,000 refugees.

They were quickly eclipsed one month later when about 1 million mostly Hutu refugees fled west to Goma, Zaire, from Tutsi-led rebels who toppled a regime blamed for the slaughter of up to 500,000 Tutsis.

"It's like they don't exist anymore," complained Myriam Houtart, U.N. community services coordinator for the Ngara camps.

Compared to the wretched and chaotic camps where refugees live in squat huts around Goma, the Benaco camp's checkerboard layout of shacks spaced apart by several yards looks like a planned community for the 250,000 inhabitants.

Makeshift restaurants, merchant stalls and bicycle repair shops line dusty roads crisscrossing the camp. German Red Cross workers even built their own "Hard Rock Cafe Benaco" in their compound, with Beach Boys tunes wafting from a boom box.

"It's OK here. We're not hungry," said refugee Jean Bosco Sarambuye, 42, a barber who set up shop, snipping a client's hair for the equivalent of 40 cents. "But a lot of people are sick."

Compared to an estimated 500 people dying daily in the Goma camps, about 100 are dying in the Ngara camps, mainly from diarrhea. Cholera has yet to hit Ngara, but a separate quarantine camp stands ready.

The rolling Tanzanian countryside on Rwanda's eastern border contrasts sharply with Goma's terrain, hemmed in by a simmering volcano and steep mountains. A new camp called Mushuhura Hills is under construction to siphon off about 50,000 people from the teeming Benaco camp.

The Ngara camps also lack the stench of human waste that permeates the Goma camps, where volcanic rock made it next to impossible to dig latrines and torrential rains turn camps into giant cesspools.

Ngara had a head start over Goma. When engulfed by a human tide of Rwandans in April, it had already been caring for Burundi refugees who arrived last October fleeing Hutu-Tutsi strife in their country.

But Ngara and Goma have the common potential for violence.

At the Benaco camp one afternoon, a mob beat a woman accused of poisoning a teen-age girl. U.N. workers managed to lead her away to safety, her face bloody and swollen.

"Someone taking plastic sheeting off a latrine was killed," said Gail Neudorf, operations manager for CARE at Ngara. "People are still very violent, perhaps due to frustration."

Aid workers leave the camps at night, sleeping in nearby compounds, unable to respond to distant screams.

"You hear things, but there's not a lot you can do about it," she said.

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