500,000 Refugees Disappeared in One Day
Information about the massacres of refugees in the former Zaire in 1996 was never released. The United States was involved in keeping the information secret, says
an official in the US Department of State.
By Gunnar Willum
[Please note: This is a somewhat sketchy translation that I have not had the time to review myself]
When Rwanda invaded neighbouring Congo - the former Zaire, in October 1996, it was to break up the refugee camps in which lived over a million Hutu refugees and
also the former Rwandese regime that committed the genocide against the Tutsis in 1994.
After the International Aid Organisations had evacuated the camps, most of the refugees began to return to Rwanda. Everyone could see that, but there was a big
disagreement about the important question of 'how many refugees remained in Zaire?' The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) like many other Aid Organisations, believed that there
were still hundreds of thousands of refugees still remaining and therefore there was a need to use an International force to protect them and also to ensure the distribution of aid.
They were in the meanime powerful forces that down played the existence of the remaining refugees and with that the need for a UN intervention. The US Government,
which would be obliged to actively take part in such a UN force attempted thereby with reference to air photographs from satellites and spy planes to convince the international press that all the
refugees had returned home to Rwanda, and that the humanitarian catastrophe was therefore avoided. Those who were still there, insisted the US Ministry of Defense, were not refugees. They were
military men and therefore a military target.
This view- point met the sympathy of the international community, but is vehemently denied by the Danish Vice High Commissioner for the United Nations Refugee
Organisation (UNHCR), Søren Jessen Pedersen. "From one day to the next there were no more refugees. 500,000 refugees were missing. Quite a conservative figure, that was opposed by many countries
because there was no interest in carrying out a military operation," says Søren Jessen Petersen. Later the then EU-Commissioner for Aid, Emma Bonnino was astonished over how hundreds of thousands
of refugees could suddenly disappear from the world's most sophisticated intelligence services. But they did not disappear.
The US government knew that there were still hundreds of thousands of refugees in Zaire and knew their fate. This is confirmed by a centrally placed official in the
US Department of State to Information. Washington had detailed information that USA's allies, the Tutsi- dominated Rwandese army, committed systematic massacres against the Hutu refugees in the
former Zaire in 1996-97, confirmed the source. More than 200,000 Hutu refugees, men, women and children were murdered or starved to death according to Human Rights Organisations.
"Already by October 1996 there poured in news from several independent sources and from our own people on the ground that Uganda and Rwanda had invaded Zaire, and
that the Rwandese army was committing mass murders against the Hutu refugees," the official has told Information. Aid agencies believe that information about the hundreds of thousands of
surviving refugees and the massacres were subsequently kept secret, so as not to force USA to take part in the planned UN intervention to protect the refugees. It was first and foremost a
question of money.
"A UN intervention would have meant the establishment of new refugee camps in Zaire. The USA wanted to avoid this, the camps weighed a lot on USA's diminishing aid
budget," says Nicholas Stockton from the British Aid Organisation Oxfam, who worked in Eastern Zaire during the crisis. "Rather than a deliberate conspiracy, it was exactly like during the Rwanda
genocide in 1994, where due to a lack of strategic interest, there was a desire not to get engaged and a wish to save money," assesses Nicholas Stockton.
Need For A Force
During November 1996 there was a demand for a UN intervention force, after Uganda and Rwanda had secretly attacked the refugee camps in Zaire in September 1996,
under the cover of a local rebel uprising against Mobutu, Zaire's leader at that time. The refugees - together over a million - among them militia and the regular army units, who had committed
the genocide in 1994, were scattered in Zaire's impassable terrain. Frightened that thousands of refugees would die of hunger, the UN Security Council, after pressure from the Aid Organisations,
authorised the installation of an intervention force, which would protect the refugees and ensure distribution of aid.
The prospect of an intervention raised concern in the Rwandese government, who regarded the refugees as a military threat, which should be eliminated. This was also
a concern of Rwanda's allies USA, who did not wish to continue paying for the operation of the refugee camps. To avoid the UN intervention the Rwandese army pressed the refugees back towards
Rwanda with a pincer movement. In agreement with the Rwandese government's wish, the US government started a misinformation campaign among other things by referring to air photographs to claim
that a catastrophe had been avoided as the refugees had returned home. This happened despite Washington receiving detailed reports that the Rwandese army were committing systematic massacres on
the Hutu refugees, and without taking into consideration whether they were militia or women and children.
"They had chosen sides and closed their eyes to what was happening," says the source in the US Department of State. "If you want to know what happened to the
refugees, you should open the archives in Washington. There is a lot of information about the massacres, which the government would not wish to disclose," says Cathi Austin from the Human Rights
Organisation, Human Rights Watch. When the circumstances of the massacres began to be known, the USA kept a distance from the new Zaire leader Laurent Kabila who had re-baptised the country to
The Democratic Republic of Congo.
Kabila had otherwise so far been supported both diplomatically and politically. Now demands were made that investigators from UN's Human Rights Commission under the
leadership of the Chilean Roberto Garreton should be allowed to enter the country. This was just lip-talk, says a high-ranking UN diplomat to Information. "USA let us understand that they were
not interested in finding out what happened to the refugees. They had their own interests." According to Human Rights Watch the US diplomats privately requested Kabila not to co-operate with the
investigation team. The UN Secretary General Kofi Annan pulled the team out in April 1998 after obstructions from Kabila, when he refused the observers entry to the presumed mass grave