Background: Crisis in Zaire
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MARGARET WARNER: The civil war in Zaire has exacerbated the plight of nearly one hundred thousand Rwandan refugees — the remnants of one million refugees who fled to Zaire from Rwanda after the 1994 civil war and genocide in their own country. Yesterday Zaire’s refugee crisis took another tragic turn when at least 91 refugees were smothered and trampled to death in railway boxcars. The trains were supposed to be taking them from the Biaro refugee camp in North Central Zaire to the city of Kisangani, where they were to board U.N.-sponsored flights back home to Rwanda. We have a report from Lindsay Taylor of Independent Television News.
LINDSAY TAYLOR, ITN: Today trucks, not trains, brought the Rwandan refugees to the transit camp near Kinsangani. The hundreds who had been packed aboard the vehicles by rebels were deposited in the midst of the site. Here, they joined the hundreds of others waiting to be repatriated to Rwanda.
Most are weak and hungry. Some are sick. Just a few yards away are the people that did not make it this far, the 91 killed in yesterday’s horrifying train crash, the bodies of whom were removed from the track side today. They boarded a train believing they were on their way to a new life back home. Instead, their journey ended like this. As a result of yesterday’s tragedy, which happened after nearly 3,000 refugees crammed aboard the carriages for the two-hour trip, the U.N. has suspended the use of such trains. Today, as some of the survivors were treated in Kisangani Hospital, U.N. officials were sharply critical of the rebels for dispatching the train without notice, and aid workers have appealed for greater cooperation on the ground. Scenes like these reinforce the need for a stable political backdrop for the safe management of the repatriation program.
But that is proving as elusive as ever. The ailing President Mobutu, here returning from his meeting with the rebel leader, Laurent Kabila, has refused to step down right away. He believes there should be an immediate cease-fire and that a transitory authority be set up to organize elections. He would then hand over power to the newly-elected president.
But at the peace talks, under the mediation to the South African President, Nelson Mandela, Kabila said Mobutu should step aside and allow his group to form the transitional authority. Each agreed to think about the other’s proposals for a week, but the rebels have since made clear they’re ready to seize power whether Mobutu agrees or not. In Kinshasa, Rwandan refugees camped outside United Nations offices are fearful of the rebel leader and want either the U.N.’s protection or its help to escape.
REFUGEE: Either they can help us here to stay, or take us out from here. Because of this war we don’t know.
REFUGEE: They afraid of Kabila because his troops always kills Rwandans.
LINDSAY TAYLOR: But there’s a queue to be among the hundreds boarding the flights from Kisangani to Rwanda. Here, it’s an orderly affair, but as yesterday’s train journey showed, with so many to be transported home in so little time, the repatriation program can easily turn to tragedy.