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UNHCR appeals for safe passage for refugees

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UNHCR appeals for safe passage for refugees

26 March 1997

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees appealed today for safe passage for tens of thousands of refugees seeking to return to Rwanda after a five-month odyssey in the war-torn rain forest of eastern Zaire.

The refugees are scattered along a 95-km route from the outskirts of Ubundu to Kisangani, logistics hub of humanitarian operations in eastern Zaire. About 10,00-15,000 of them are encamped 7 kilometres south of Kisangani, at a place called Lula. Soldiers of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (ADFL) have refused them entry into the city. The ADFL wants the refugees to go back to Ubundu.

"These refugees have gone through a terrible ordeal since they were forced to leave the camps at the outbreak of fighting in October in eastern Zaire," High Commissioner Sadako Ogata said in a statement issued in Geneva. "They are malnourished, traumatized and stricken with diseases. They have told us they want to end their agony and return to Rwanda," she said.

"The journey home is long and fraught with dangers. We need assurances that will build the refugees' confidence and encourage them to return."

Ogata noted that the leadership of the Alliance has said on several occasions that it is prepared to open humanitarian corridors to permit the refugees to return safely to Rwanda. She said she hoped a safe and appropriate place would be found to accommodate the refugees until they are fit enough to make the 400-kilometre journey to Rwanda.

A UNHCR team today joined a convoy that set out by rail from Kisangani to distribute food and emergency aid to the refugees along the western bank of the Zaire river. The team will attempt to pin down the number of refugees and look at possible temporary sites that will enable relief workers to provide them with emergency assistance.

On Tuesday, UNHCR officers saw Alliance troops moving in and out of Lula, indicating that former Rwandan soldiers and extremists were no longer with the group. Refugees told UNHCR the former soldiers and extremists had abandoned them and that the armed men were now proceeding farther west. The refugees have said the extremists had used them as human shields as they fled advancing Alliance forces.

The refugees along the Kisangani-Ubundu road are remnants of some 170,000 from makeshift camps in Tingi-Tingi and Amisi. Another 200,000 refugees, mostly Rwandan and including Burundi, remain unaccounted for in eastern Zaire since they fled camps on the Zaire-Rwanda border at the beginning of the civil war.

UNHCR continuous to search for refugees in the Uvira, Kindu, Bukavu and Goma areas, transporting unaccompanied children, the sick and elderly it finds to Rwanda.