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About 40,000 refugees again on the move in Zaire

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About 40,000 refugees again on the move in Zaire

5 February 1997

Some 40,000 Rwandan refugees fled encampments in the Shabunda area in eastern Zaire today following reports rebels have taken a nearby town.

"All the refugee sites in Shabunda are empty,"said Dillah Doumaye, UNHCR's deputy representative in Zaire. "The refugees packed their belongings, the plastic sheets they use for shelter and went away. They were prepared to leave and the departure was orderly."

A small UNHCR plane bringing in blankets and food was surrounded by a group of about 150 people demanding to be flown out. Police twice fired shots in the air to disperse the crowd. The plane took off with all three UNHCR staff members posted in Shabunda on board after distributing the relief supplies, originally destined for the Catholic mission of Shabunda.

Local authorities said the refugees moved out after reports swept Shabunda that Katshunga, a small town located 45 km north-east of Shabunda, had fallen. There has been no independent confirmation of these reports. A UNHCR staff member went by motorcycle to Katshunga on Sunday carrying some relief supplies for a local missionary helping refugees in transit. He met a group of 150 refugees on the road to Shabunda.

The UNHCR plane failed to find a trace of the refugees who had departed and had to return to Kisangani because it was running out of fuel. The plane will overfly the area on Thursday and attempt to locate the refugees, Doumaye said. They were believed to be heading west, possibly toward Kalima and Kindu.

The refugees abandoned Shabunda a day after UNHCR completed the distribution of a four-day food ration of beans, corn meal and corn-soya blend. A food warehouse and a hospital in Shabunda were looted, allegedly by the local people, as the refugees were leaving. About 7,000 Zairians were also reported to have fled Shabunda.

UNHCR has been the only agency operating in Shabunda since other international relief workers withdrew in December in the midst of insecurity and extreme difficulties in bringing in assistance. Relief supplies had to be flown in via a small grass airstrip, put on bicycles, then boats to cross a river and finally onto the backs of refugees for the final journey to the encampments.

UNHCR is also assisting another 40,000 refugees in nearby Amisi and 120,000 in Tingi-Tingi.

The emptying of Shabunda came on the eve of High Commissioner Sadako Ogata's departure on Thursday for the Great Lakes region. She is attempting to find ways of increasing the amount of humanitarian aid into eastern Zaire and ways of assuring the safety and protection of refugees in other areas. She plans to visit refugee sites during her visit to Zaire, the first stop on her 10-day trip to the region.