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Crisis in Zaire

May 5, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: For more on this story we turn to Sadako Ogata, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. That post makes this former Japanese professor and diplomat responsible for the care, repatriation, and resettlement of more than 20 million refugees and displaced people around the world. And welcome, Madame Ambassador. Where does the railway tragedy of this weekend leave your effort to move these still tens of thousands of Rwandan refugees out of there?

SADAKO OGATA, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees: The train incident shows the difficulty that we’re facing on various levels. There is, of course, the logistical problems. But basically we had a very good plan to take these people orderly from their camps to Kisangani and airlift them on April 18th. Then there was a lot of problems that we faced in the local areas from the local Zairians, but there was an attack by the military on the refugee camps on the 21st.

And that is when all the refugees started in fear, ran into the rain forest. And it was with this background that the refugees–when they knew that they can–that we were to start the airlift again swarmed out and tried to get on the train. And the train was obviously not the kind of passenger trains–these were just carts that people crammed–and we were not on the train because the train left without being properly coordinated by us, and the refugees being so fearful, they just wanted to grab the opportunity to be taken home.

And so the psychology of the refugees, the instability of the military, even attacking refugees, shows that we are trying to do a repatriation operation in an environment that is neither safe nor thoroughly coordinated, and so it is very, very difficult.

MARGARET WARNER: And you are operating, I gather, under a deadline imposed by the rebel leader Laurent Kabila?

SADAKO OGATA: Yes. Mr. Kabila, however, after we had a meeting, my colleagues in Kisangani on Saturday, the 27th, did give a deadline, but later said that this was more of a target, so I think there is room for orderly return if only the local authorities and the military cooperate with us.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, now, explain to us why are the Zairian rebels killing the refugees?

SADAKO OGATA: Well, I don’t–I cannot say that they are intentionally killing, but there was an attack by the–in an area that was controlled by the Zairian rebels, and so this is also a credibility issue, how much are they in control of the area, and how much Mr. Kabila, himself, who has promised us an orderly repatriation, is in control, and I think this is very serious because presumably he will be in control of the country if all these negotiations move on.

And I think the way this refugee issue is handled by the rebel, by the rebel alliance leadership, by the military of the rebel alliance, by the local authorities, and how well Rwanda receives them in a cooperative way will all be a very serious test for the future.

MARGARET WARNER: Explain to us what seems to be a dichotomy, which is Kabila made it clear he’d like these x-tens of thousands refugees gone, yet, forces loyal to him are either making it hard for you to operate, or by many accounts also engaging in attacks. Why? I mean, does he not control them? Do they have another agenda?

SADAKO OGATA: I think it could be either, or also that these are not the most welcome people, in fact, in Rwanda, although the Rwandan leaders, whom I met in February, said that they would receive all of them.

MARGARET WARNER: But just to explain, these are Hutus, who are–

SADAKO OGATA: These were Hutus.

MARGARET WARNER: –blamed for massive genocide three years ago.

SADAKO OGATA: Massive genocide. And they’re the ones that kept on moving west, fearful of return. So there’s a lot of suspicion.

MARGARET WARNER: And so what will it take, do you think, to solve this crisis?

SADAKO OGATA: I think strong international attention. There are not only Kisangani and Ulunda area where this up to a hundred thousand people were there, but there are other areas in–within Eastern Zaire, where there’s allegations of human rights violations. I think the–in order for the rebel alliance to be–to show that they are in control, they will have to give us some assurance that they are, in fact, respecting the human rights. Their military is in control. All these things will have to come out much more clearly.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, in the speech you gave at the Holocaust Museum here in Washington last week you said that the whole world really bears responsibility for situations such as this one. Explain that a little more.

SADAKO OGATA: Well, I didn’t really mean the whole world in the sense, but this–the whole refugee crisis in the Great Lakes region was really left mostly to the humanitarian agencies to tackle with as a humanitarian crisis. But the real cause was underlying, was political, military, of the kind that had to be dealt with by the political leaders in the region, and then the countries which have influence over these countries like the United States or the various European countries. And I feel that the political initiatives came late.

MARGARET WARNER: So, for instance, you had asked for international military help, had you not, to separate in these camps the militants from the sort of legitimate refugees.

SADAKO OGATA: Yes. The 1994–over the summer–because we did have a lot of military elements in the refugee camps, and refugee camps should have maintained a civilian character, but there was–I mean our own colleagues cannot exactly de-mobilize soldiers, so what we ask, what I asked was to separate them, but this was not done.

No country would take that risk and gradually more and more the camps turned into a power base of the Hutu refugees or the Hutu Exfar Interhamways that wanted to have return to their country through force, or through political negotiations. And there was no way that we could control that.

MARGARET WARNER: And of course, the Zairian rebel army is mostly, I gather, made up of Tutsis, the rival tribe?

SADAKO OGATA: They’re Tutsi, the Bungamalenges people–took–were very well trained, and they were a main part of the rebel alliance forces.

MARGARET WARNER: But what do you–what should publicly–what should leaders in the West do when their own publics here in the United States and in Europe say we don’t want our young men and women dying to save refugees like this, and we don’t really want to welcome tens of thousands into this country?

SADAKO OGATA: You don’t–I wouldn’t say that you have to send soldiers to really be killed so much. There are moments–I don’t think even separating the military elements from the refugees in 1994 was that dangerous an undertaking. These were people who were defeated. But a presence, international presence, from a major western or African country, should have made a big difference in making people comply.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you, Madame Ambassador, very much.

SADAKO OGATA: Thank you very much.