The Zairian government has stepped up a campaign to arm Hutu guerrillas living among the largest population of Rwandan refugees still in Zaire, effectively making human shields of tens of thousands of refugees, according to diplomats and international relief workers.
Diplomats and aid workers say that, in recent days, so many weapons have been flown into the Tingi-Tingi camp that they have interrupted relief shipments. The camp, located 125 miles southwest of Zaire’s third largest city, Kisangani, is a tiny jungle village that has swelled to 150,000 people as Rwandan Hutus fleeing fighting in the east flocked into the camp.
The arming of Hutu refugees also threatens to set off another wave of ethnic killings as Zaire’s embattled government enlists Hutus to fight an advancing rebel army led mostly by Tutsis. And it poses uncomfortable questions for aid workers who must decide whether they can safely stay in the camp to help refugees, many of whom are implicated in previous massacres of Tutsis. According to an internal U.N. report on the situation at Tingi-Tingi, “arms, uniforms, and munitions are being supplied daily in the camp itself.”
The report went on to describe a “well-defined area at the eastern edge of the landing strip” that is being used as a makeshift armory by the Zairian army and its Hutu allies. On Friday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called upon the Zairian government to end the militarization of the Tingi-Tingi camp, which he said “is endangering the lives of innocent refugees and humanitarian workers.” Zairian officials denied the reports and bitterly attacked the United Nations for failing to repatriate Rwandan Hutu populations earlier.
On Monday, however, military authorities in Kisangani told the U.N. High Commission for Refugees that “efforts would be made to stop military activity in the camp.” The rebels have advanced to within less than 40 miles of the Tingi-Tingi camp, and have threatened to attack the settlement in coming days unless the Zairian government or the international community disarms Hutu fighters there.
Zaire’s war began in late October as a rebellion by ethnic Tutsis who were stripped of their Zairian citizenship by the government in Kinshasa despite having lived in Zaire for several generations. Diplomats say that Rwanda, and later Uganda and Burundi, supported the rebels, whose first mission appeared to be forcing armed Hutu refugees away from the Zairian border region, from where they had mounted attacks on Rwanda.
Journalists who visited the Tingi-Tingi camp last week were able to observe the unloading of what appeared to be crates of ammunition and mortar rounds from an old, chartered transport plane, by Hutu refugees. Relief workers also told of a forbidden area at the edge of the camp that is said to be a Hutu training ground.
The relief planes, 50-year old South African-owned DC-3s which land on a narrow highway that runs through the settlement, are chartered by the Zaire army and humanitarian groups alike. And in recent days, as the armament effort has accelerated, aid workers have complained that their flights to the camp have been repeatedly delayed. To prevent the flights from landing at moments of intense military activity, diplomats say that militia members and Zairian soldiers guarding the camp have parked vehicles on the landing strip, moving them only when they have finished their work.
On Monday, aid workers reported that relief flights were blocked altogether when the Zairian government moved portable aviation refueling equipment from Kisangani to the eastern city of Kindu, where it was used by Zairian jets flying bombing runs over the rebel-controlled border city of Bukavu.
Relief officials say that between 30 and 50 people have been dying each day in Tingi-Tingi, which in recent weeks experts say, has only been receiving about one third of the 100 tons of food a day needed to feed the population there. That shortfall stems partly from the arms shipments, but also from a debate among international relief agencies over how many Hutu refugees were in the forests of east-central Zaire.
For many here, the situation at the Tingi-Tingi camp recalls the scenes at the start of the fighting in Zaire, when rebels shelled a huge U.N.-run refugee camp in the eastern city of Goma, where Hutu fighters lived alongside a large population of Rwandan Hutu refugees. The Hutu population, which included thousands of former members of the Rwandan army and Hutu militias who were responsible for the 1994 massacres of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis, fled.
While most have since returned to Rwanda, as many as 300,000 Hutu refugees, perhaps still including several thousand guerrillas, remain in Zaire. As they fled Goma and other parts of eastern Zaire, diplomats and relief officials say that the Zairian army repeatedly armed Hutu refugees in the hope that they would stop the westward progress of the rebels.
Once again, in Tingi-Tingi, diplomats and international aid workers say that Zaire is arming Hutu fighters, who are using other refugees in the camp as human shields to prevent an attack by the advancing rebels. “You just know that a lot of the people you are helping are people who have killed and will go out and kill again,” one relief worker told a recent visitor to Tingi-Tingi. “At the same time, you look at these people, and so many of them are just desperate. Don’t we have an obligation to help them?”
Two weeks ago, when rebels were thought to be moving in on the town of Lubutu, about five miles from Tingi-Tingi, international aid workers were evacuated from the area to Kisangani, the regional capital. Kisangani is among the rebels’ next declared targets. Insecurity in the area has made it impossible for aid workers to remain on the ground at the camp, and now relief workers fly in every day or two to supply food and give medical assistance at the camp.
Fearing a replay of what happened in Goma in November, when the rebels attacked the refugee camps, many aid groups are contemplating what they say would be the catastrophic consequences of a total pullout. “We have had 1,200 people die in this camp already since December 16, essentially women and children,” said Dr. Pierre Salignon, director of relief operations for Doctors Without Borders at Tingi-Tingi. “The most vulnerable populations have already had to pay a very heavy price. If they are abandoned by the international community, it is certain that these people will die.”
The original title was “Zaire Government Is Arming Hutus, Making Human Shields of Refugees” By Howard W. French, New York Times, 19 February 1997