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Refugees Magazine Issue 110 (Crisis in the Great Lakes) - Cover Story: Heart of Darkness

Refugees Magazine Issue 110 (Crisis in the Great Lakes) - Cover Story: Heart of Darkness
Refugees (110, IV - 1997)

1 December 1997
The Great Lakes was one of the largest and most complex humanitarian crises in modern times.

By Ray Wilkinson

The Rwandan genocide was in full swing and there were rumours that a refugee exodus of biblical proportions was underway.

In neighbouring Tanzania, Maureen Connelly and other aid workers anxiously visited the border area almost daily to check, but at first there was only an ominous silence. "There was no movement. There was no information," she recalls now. "Had the genocide swallowed these people up as well? Did they even exist? We were looking for clues in a vacuum and it was eerie."

On April 28, 1994, Connelly's small scouting team approached the Rusumo Bridge frontier crossing as usual. "We looked up at the Rwandan hills," she said. "There was nothing but people. The hills were covered with a moving mass. The entire African landscape was awash with people, all headed our way."

More than 200,000 Rwandans crossed into Tanzania in 24 hours through this single border post, an organized evacuation which field workers described as the fastest and largest exodus of refugees in modern times.

What subsequently became known as the African Great Lakes refugee crisis blasted its way onto the international agenda within a matter of hours, but the repercussions continue to unfold today.

Hundreds of thousands of people fled in every direction of the compass in 1994. The majority were Rwandans but they also included Burundis and Zairians caught up in the turmoil. An estimated 50,000 people who fled to Zaire in July died from cholera and other diseases in those first chaotic days and tens of thousands more probably perished in the rainforests from revenge killings and disease nearly three years later.

Central Africa's political and military landscape was transformed. A new government seized power in Rwanda in the wake of the mass killings and Hutu exodus, new regional and international alliances were formed and the continent's most enduring dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, was toppled from power in the then Zaire, subsequently renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Humanitarian agencies helped save the lives of untold numbers of innocent victims, but lost some of their own innocence in the process.

What began as a seemingly straightforward operation to help refugees turned into possibly the messiest humanitarian quagmire since the modern regime of refugee protection and assistance was established in the wake of World War 11.

Aid agencies faced appalling dilemmas such as whether to continue feeding women and children knowing they were also feeding killers; whether to tell the world what they knew about the 1997 atrocities in the rain forests at the risk of jeopardizing ongoing operations to save still living refugees; and whether to modify the cornerstone of refugee protection - voluntary repatriation - to save people who would otherwise almost certainly die.

There were no easy answers and the decisions taken in the last nearly four years continue to haunt humanitarian agencies such as UNHCR, NGOs, involved governments and the refugees themselves. They will also undoubtedly influence the way future crises are approached.

"We climbed a mountain of dilemmas every day," says Filippo Grandi, a senior UNHCR official who spent many months at the heart of the operation. "And we were all scarred permanently."

A convenient narrative starting point for the crisis began, not at the Rusumo Bridge in April, 1994, but in October, 1993 when Melchior Ndadaye, the first democratically elected president of Rwanda's neighbour, Burundi, was murdered by renegade soldiers. Revenge killings swept the countryside and 700,000 Hutus fled to Rwanda, Tanzania and Zaire to escape reprisals.

Those events cast a long shadow over what was to follow in Rwanda only a few months later. Most of the Burundis had gone home by the time the fleeing Rwandans arrived in Tanzania, but the infrastructure, contingency planning and food stockpiles left over from the earlier operation benefitted the new arrivals.

"We were very lucky. Most things fell into place," said Connelly who was UNHCR's head of contingency planning and later, emergency coordinator. In addition to the stockpiles "we had a very good government with a great reputation for helping refugees, a large number of agencies on the ground and the exodus was large enough to attract immediate international help."

The refugees themselves were organized, they were healthy and within 12 months a half million people had sought safety in Tanzania.

In those early days, the crisis appeared manageable, but there were already worrying incidents which heralded the dilemmas and tragedy to follow. When UNHCR tried to evict a known killer from Benaco camp, an angry mob of 3,000 youths, some of them drugged and carrying sticks and machetes, surrounded a small group of unarmed aid workers. "The situation was saved, and possibly the lives of the foreigners as well, by the arrival of 20 Tanzanian policemen firing into the air," Jacques Franquin , the Benaco camp manager, recalls now.

The crisis began to overwhelm field personnel in mid-July when more than one million people literally smashed into the tiny lakeside town of Goma in the sprawling Central African state of Zaire.

When the Belgians were masters there, Goma and a string of other towns such as Bukavu and Gisenyi were idyllic colonial retreats full of whitewashed lakeside mansions and expensive European restaurants. Majestic, active volcanoes pierced the African skyline. Mountain gorillas and other rare species wandered their flanks.

Under Mobutu the area had been in decline for 30 years, but still retained a down-at-heel charm and grace when the refugee tide arrived, sweeping through a single barrier which marked the frontier - women with bunches of children clinging to their dresses and mountains of household wares balanced precariously on their heads, old men on crutches and in wheelbarrows and, ominously, young men in uniform and in civilian clothes armed with every conceivable type of weapon. Some arms were abandoned, but others were smuggled into Zaire.

Refugee camps ideally should be demilitarized and situated away from any sensitive border area for security reasons. The Goma region, however, was already heavily populated and local Zairean authorities insisted the new arrivals move quickly through Goma itself, several miles westwards to a camp subsequently named Mugunga and northwards to several other locations.

The Zaireans said the mainly Hutu refugees would not be welcomed by other ethnic groups, including longtime Tutsi populations, in other areas, a reason later generally overlooked, but the truth of which was underlined by future events.

The refugees now entered a deadly game of Russian roulette and their lives were at stake. Those herded northwards were in mortal danger. Water was tantalizingly close in nearby lakes, but not close enough for the most vulnerable.

Diarrhea, cholera and other diseases swept the huddled ranks. The dead were wrapped in white shrouds or straw mats and laid alongside roads. The bodies became so numerous French troops, Zaire boy scouts and other workers were unable to bury them fast enough, especially in the gnarled black volcanic landscape which was so hard even the smallest hole had to be dynamited.

The scenes were as gruesome as those of the great Ethiopian famine a decade earlier and many international television crews did not broadcast the full horror to the world. On the worst day in late July, 1994, at least 7,000 people died in one 24 hour period.


"Every time I see something which resembles a certain shape I shiver and think of dead bodies," says Filippo Grandi. "This happens to me even in Geneva. Those awful bundles. Those bundles - those seemingly innocent straw mats - came to symbolize the horror more than the bodies themselves."

As many as 50,000 people died in those first few weeks - some very mysteriously. Pockets of refugees had found shelter in deep volcanic cavities near the lake and apparently were overcome by deadly fumes seeping through the black rock crust from the lake.

The international community responded on a scale last seen in Bosnia. Within weeks, nearly 200 aid agencies poured into Goma - all intent on helping, but many also with an eye to the publicity and fund raising opportunities such a headline crisis offered. Governments responded with cash, technical expertise and military muscle for the humanitarian effort.

There had been divisions in the humanitarian community in Bosnia about the advisability of enlisting soldiers in a humanitarian cause, but the Great Lakes underlined that in special, overwhelming circumstances ONLY a well organized military logistical operation, especially the use of heavy lift aircraft, could help save so many people in such a short time.

In the first two weeks of the Goma operation, the international community spent an estimated $2 billion. Many analysts noted after the event that similar amounts of aid spent for longterm economic and social development in the region could possibly have helped avoid the catastrophe in the first place. Realists responded that while that scenario was theoretically true, voters in leading donor countries would never willingly allocate such large sums to mundane and distinctly unglamorous longterm projects, but would undoubtedly continue to respond to heart-catching crises.

When the dying stopped, the crisis moved into a new and infinitely more complex phase. Until now the problem had seemed relatively straightforward; respond to the outflow of refugees, save lives, stabilize the situation and begin to make plans for large-scale repatriation. Things did not work out that way. Ominously, the old commune and village structures remained intact and senior officials and Interahamwe militias who had directed the original genocide, established control in the new camps.

Soldiers of the defeated Rwandan army retained both their cohesion and many of their weapons and pitched tent just outside civilian camps. A common sight at the entrance to each camp in those days was a mercedes saloon, still sporting Rwandan license plates, full of men in dark suits and sunglasses, handing out huge piles of cash to young camp thugs.

Refugees who stepped out of line by agreeing to repatriate or challenging the old authorities were beaten, hand-grenaded or killed. Food distribution was effectively controlled by the old guard, leading to eventual charges that UNHCR, especially, had fed and protected those guilty of genocide and helped set the stage for events in 1996-97.

There was a degree of scapegoating in that allegation. That earlier mob scene in Tanzania's Benaco camp underlined how powerless unarmed aid workers were to challenge organized gangs of thugs. UNHCR field personnel did highlight the stranglehold the militias imposed on the camps in news conferences and official reports and appealed for international help.

High Commissioner Sadako Ogata insisted in one recent news interview: "The real dilemma was that we repeatedly asked governments for help. UN Secretary General Boutros Ghali asked 40 to 50 governments for blue helmets. He got only one positive answer." UNHCR finally hired elite Zairean troops to keep a semblance of order - a less than ideal situation which everyone recognized but appeared willing to live with.

Asked why UNHCR simply did not withdraw from the camps at the time, Ogata replied: "There were also innocent refugees in the camps; more than half were women and children. Should we have said: you are related to murderers, so you are guilty, too? My mandate - unlike those of private aid agencies - obliges me to help."

The following period was the "Forgotten Years" at least outside the region. The television cameras departed and the world lost interest. This apparent silence from the Great Lakes, however, was deceptive. According to Joel Boutroue who headed UNHCR's Goma office at this time, there were increasingly urgent and eventually desperate efforts to break the stalemate and get the refugees home.

There was early agreement among the major actors, according to Boutroue, that the peaceful repatriation of the refugees was by far the best solution. But after that, there was little accord. Should there be an early return to a still stricken land? Should repatriation be delayed until Rwanda was in better shape to receive more than one million people? Should it be a mass return or a phased return?

Other options were explored and re-examined. How could genuine refugees be separated from the killers and how could the camps be moved from the border, further into the interior? Eventually, even the 'unthinkable' was mooted and controversial solutions were examined such as cutting off aid to 'encourage' the refugees to return home, or staging a limited forced repatriation to try to kick start a mass exodus.

Nothing worked. "Conflicting agendas between international actors, limited interest and internal dissent were recipes for a disastrous international involvement in the Great Lakes," Boutroue concluded in a recent study of events at the time.

Aid workers increasingly felt 'alone' and abandoned by the international community, their work, as in Bosnia, a figleaf for military and political inaction.

Boutroue believes that UNHCR's own role was undermined by a "failure to maintain a clear policy regarding a return" of refugees.

High Commissioner Sadako Ogata said the agency could have been more forceful at that time in explaining its various dilemmas: "Public opinion wasn't much interested in our quandary. When some aid agencies pulled out, they hoped to wake the world up,but it didn't happen." Still, she added, "We should probably have turned to public opinion more to put pressure on governments. If there had been a modicum of agreement then among the big powers, there might have been at least the outline of a political solution. But none of that came to pass."

If there was little movement in solving the refugee problem, political and military developments began to take an ominous turn. Hit-and-run raids into Rwanda increased. Unrest rippled across the belly of Africa.


In October, 1996, what at first appeared to be a localized rebellion broke out in Zaire's southern Kivu region. Mobutu Sese Seko had survived many such brush wars in the past, but this one would prove fatal to the ailing dictator. The rebels first targetted the refugee camps strung out in a thin web along Zaire's eastern flank. UNHCR and other agencies temporarily evacuated their staff when fighting engulfed Goma town, the hub of humanitarian activity in the region. Hundreds of thousands of refugees were forcibly scattered. The stage was set for one of the most macabre episodes in a region of the world which is no stranger to the bizarre.

Many refugees were forcibly herded into a pocket around the Mugunga camp west of Goma by their leaders, but there was no direct knowledge of their fate for several weeks. As the world refocused its attention on Central Africa, senior western politicians spoke of carpets of bodies. The BBC went further and declared a hidden holocaust.

UN member states agreed in principle to form an international force to help rescue the refugees, but in the end, as with so many initiatives in the Lakes, the operation was stillborn. When the rebels finally overran Mugunga in November, 1996, and hundreds of thousands of people streamed eastwards back into Rwanda, it was quickly evident that they had not been dying in large numbers, but were in remarkably good condition, given their recent ordeal.

Governments and aid agencies did not so much help these people return to Rwanda in the early days as simply watch a relentless and unstoppable flood of people on the move.

Tens of thousands of people, including most of the guilty génocidaires, their families and supporters, as well as other refugees, moved in the opposite direction to the main flow, fleeing westwards deeper into the African rainforests. For weeks the Hutus, retreating Zaire government troops, rebels and aid agencies, played a deadly game of chase and catchup across some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth.


Evidence of massacres began to surface with the fall of Mugunga. When aid officials entered that site, they found several piles of bodies among the abandoned shacks. Reports of atrocities would multiply in coming weeks.

As they struggled across hills and through rain forests, aid workers realized that on occasion, they had become unwitting accomplices in a brutal killing game. Some refugees who were lured out of the forests with the promise of food, were instead hauled away by gunmen and killed.

The massacres presented field workers with their most agonizing dilemma: whether to 'go public' with everything they knew or try to strike a balance to ensure both the security of aid workers and ongoing efforts to save still living refugees.

"It was my very worst moment," said Filippo Grandi who was operating out of the Zaire town of Kisangani, the new focal point of aid efforts. "We were cautious with the truth. Perhaps in retrospect we could have spoken out a little more. But it was truly an impossible dilemma."

As UNHCR spearheaded an operation to evacuate tens of thousands of people from around the Kisangani area, conditions for the survivors and aid workers were as dire as in the early days in Goma and Bukavu.

"I dialled the High Commissioner directly in Geneva - the first time I had done so in 10 years," Grandi said. "Conditions were so awful, I asked her whether we should just pull out. We brainstormed. We agreed to stay. We could make the big gesture by withdrawing. But our withdrawal would have doomed more people to die."

Kilian Kleinschmidt, a UNHCR emergency teamleader, remembers Kisangani as a living hell, a type of Indiana Jones movie gone bad, a surreal nightmare of ongoing slaughter and futility which left everyone scarred for life. But despite this living horror, and despite claims from some governments that there were no refugees left, more than 185,000 Rwandans were plucked from the forests in 1997. An estimated 62,000 were airlifted home in the biggest humanitarian airbridge in African history. Large pockets remain in several countries and many tens of thousands will never be accounted for.

Throughout the crisis, first in eastern Zaire and then in Tanzania, UNHCR as an organization faced a fundamental headache: under what circumstances should Rwandans be returned? A cornerstone of repatriation is that it should be 'voluntary' but for that to happen there has to be a degree of law and order and the support of refugee hosting governments.

Both of those ingredients withered in the heat and chaos of the Great Lakes and most refugees faced a stark choice: almost certain death in the rain forests, forcible repatriation at the point of a gun or an assisted return by UNHCR and other agencies to an admittedly uncertain future.

Many field officers refused to use the word repatriation at all, preferring the more accurate 'evacuation.'

Mistakes were made. Dilemmas were wrestled with and rarely resolved satisfactorily. Tens of thousands of people died, but hundreds of thousands were saved. Everyone involved in the Great Lakes was scarred. It was an 'impossible mission' but as Kilian Kleinschmidt said of the aid effort, "I still do not know what we could have done otherwise, as humanitarians, as human beings."

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 110 (1997)