GOMA AND BUKAVU, ZAIRE
A COLORED cloth adorns a rolled reed mat, marking a final goodbye from loved ones - probably poor farmers - who could afford no more.
The mat is one of countless others, each wrapping a refugee who has died, lining a road between the border town of Goma and refugee camps 20 miles farther inside Zaire.
Many refugees died trying to reach the camps, which have been hit by cholera. People are dying at such a rate that Karen Densen, a worker with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the camps, says the main problem in addition to providing clean water is collecting the bodies.
The camps, a jumble of mostly plastic-covered twig huts sprawled across vast volcanic planes, are crowded and filthy. Conditions for refugees in the Goma area are so bad that an estimated 30,000 refugees, mostly Hutu, have overcome their fear of being killed by Tutsi rebels inside Rwanda and returned home, according to UN officials.
``I think people are going to [go] back in huge numbers, fairly quickly,'' says David Fletcher of the UN World Food Programme. Care International, the UNHCR, and WFP are planning to make food relief available to returning refugees to encourage more to go home, Mr. Fletcher says.
``The repatriation has started,'' UNHCR's Filippo Grandi says.
To ensure that more people return, Mr. Grandi says relief agencies and the UN should spread their personnel across Rwanda and should begin working with the victorious rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) as a way of persuading refugees that the RPF will not hurt them.
Shaharyar M. Khan, special representative of the UN secretary-general to Rwanda, agrees that a key to speeding up the return of 1.2 million refugees in Zaire is expansion of the UN troop strength in Rwanda.
The UN presently has only about 550 UN troops in Rwanda. ``There's been apathy all around'' among Western nations to finance an expansion, Ambassador Khan says. Some 2,500 French troops, not part of the UN force, in southwestern Rwanda are expected to pull out by late August. UN troops are supposed to replace them. ``Even now, if the Western countries were to pull out all the stops, they could get us the men and equipment in time [to replace the French], Khan says.
Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramungu of the provisional rebel government in Kigali told reporters July 26 that he had received and accepted a request by the United States to permit US troops to establish a humanitarian mission in the capital and throughout the country. The US military, in addition to food drops, arrived here July 26 with water-purification systems.
Despite increasing help from the US, UN, and private agencies, there still does not appear to be an overall plan for meeting the needs of the refugees here. WFP officials have not found anyone to deliver trucks needed to transport food to the camps.
Miriam Barayagambye, sitting on a reed mat next to her brother and ailing father, is encouraged by the arrival of the Americans. She echoes the thought of some relief officials that the presence of US troops could help provide refugees with a sense of safety inside Rwanda. Some also urge international mediation between the RPF and the ousted Hutu-dominated government.
``If the Americans come and ensure our security, we can go home,'' Ms. Barayagambye says. But the troops would have to be physically close to refugees to prevent violence, she adds.
Many of the Hutu refugees fled Rwanda under threat of local authorities. ``This is classical Khmer Rouge [tactics],'' says Nigel Fisher, UNICEF emergency officer for Rwanda, as he rides along the road leading to the camps. He was comparing Rwandans' flight to the forced flight from the cities of millions of Cambodians under threat from political leaders in that country.
In Bukavu, south of Goma, where some 400,000 refugees are now gathered - mostly along side streets and in public buildings - Antoinette Mukarubenga, a former school teacher, stood beside the baggage she, her six children, and her mother lugged with them for three weeks en route from Gitarama, Rwanda.
``We'll die of hunger,'' she says. No relief food had reached them. Asked why she came, she replies: ``I followed everyone else; I'll go back when the others do. We arrived here with a lot of fear.'' She looks around at the empty lot where she and some other families have been camping since they arrived.
``To stay here isn't worth it. In my opinion, with my children, I should be at home, educating the children,'' she says, turning away and breaking into tears.
Yvette Kasuku cannot keep track of how many children there are in the fast-expanding orphanage she helps run in Goma for SOS, a European charity.
``I think we have 4,000 children,'' she says, pleading with a visiting delegation of senior UN and private relief agencies for help building latrines and providing clean water.
Some children at SOS appear to get lost in the shuffle. ``I haven't eaten for three days,'' says Chinya Byumba, a skinny child of about 4 or 5, whose voice is so low, you can barely hear it. Yet hungry as he is, he shares with others the two cookies Zairean staffer Gerard Musanga hands him.