Congo/Zaire hosted about 255,000 refugees at the end of 1997: an estimated 100,000 from Angola, approximately 60,000 from Sudan, 40,000 from Congo-Brazzaville, 30,000 from Rwanda, 15,000 from Burundi, and 10,000 from Uganda. More than 130,000 Congolese/Zairians were refugees at year's end: some 60,000 in Tanzania, 25,000 in Rwanda, 15,000 in Uganda, 13,000 in Zambia, 10,000 in Burundi, and nearly 10,000 in Angola. Approximately 100,000 persons were believed to be internally displaced in Congo/Zaire at year's end. The year 1997 was epic in the history of Congo/Zaire. A rapidly moving civil war astounded the world by ousting long-time dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. The nation's new leaders promptly changed the country's name from Zaire to Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Violence and population displacement persisted in eastern Congo/Zaire even after the civil war largely ended in May. In one of the world's most prominent refugee tragedies during 1997, hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees and armed Rwandan combatants trekked together deep into the forests of Congo/Zaire, where thousands of them are believed to have died due to disease, malnutrition, war, and massacres by combatants. Bitter debate over the number of "lost refugees" who died or disappeared in Congo/Zaire continued throughout the year among diplomats, relief workers, and human rights agencies. USCR conducted four site visits to Congo/Zaire during 1997 and issued three reports about the situation there. Civil War Full-scale civil war erupted in eastern Zaire in October 1996. Rebel troops, known as the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (ADFL), bolstered by Rwandan troops, quickly seized large sections of eastern Zaire before the end of 1996. Nearly a million Rwandan refugees in eastern Zaire fled their camps when ADFL troops attacked. The civil war continued unabated in early 1997. UN efforts to mediate a peace agreement failed, despite a UN Security Council resolution urging "protection and security for all refugees and displaced persons, and facilitation of access to humanitarian assistance." Mobutu's military offered little or no resistance against the advancing ADFL troops. The major city of Kisangani, in north-central Congo/Zaire, fell to ADFL forces in March. The key southeastern city of Lubumbashi was captured in April. Rebel troops and their allies seized Kinshasa, the capital, in May. A majority of citizens appeared to welcome the defeat of Mobutu and his troops, who had continued to terrorize the population even during their retreat across the country. The victorious ADFL immediately installed its leader, Laurent Kabila, as president. USCR joined with more than 40 other organizations and individuals in urging the ADFL to form a "government of national unity" that would include the country's diverse ethnic and political groups and would "prepare the ground for truly democratic elections [and] meet the full humanitarian assistance requirements in Zaire." Pockets of violence continued in eastern Congo/Zaire during the last half of 1997, provoked by long-simmering ethnic tensions and the continued presence of Rwandan soldiers and militia members linked to the extremist former government of Rwanda. Shadowy insurgent groups sprang up to challenge ADFL control in some eastern areas. The number of Congolese/Zairians killed or wounded during the civil war is unknown. Uprooted Congolese/Zairians The number of residents who became internally displaced during the civil war remains uncertain. More than 100,000 were already uprooted in eastern Zaire prior to the civil war due to ethnic conflicts. Poor roads, impenetrable forests, and pockets of insecurity impeded full assessments of humanitarian needs in the country's vast isolated areas throughout 1997. A UN funding appeal in March estimated that nearly a half-million Congolese/Zairians were displaced. U.S. aid officials estimated in August that some 230,000 probably were uprooted within the country. A UN human rights official reported in mid-year that 250,000 to 400,000 were displaced. An international NGO put the number at 190,000. All sources agreed that the most pervasive displacement was in the chronically unstable Masisi zone of eastern Congo/Zaire, near the town of Goma. USCR site visits to eastern Congo/Zaire during 1997 concluded that up to half the population in some areas of the east were at least temporarily displaced during the war. Many were able to return home after several weeks, but thousands of families endured long-term displacement caused by lingering insecurity in their home areas. USCR estimated that up to 150,000 people remained internally displaced at mid-year, but a majority were "invisible to outsiders because they are dispersed," USCR's report noted. About 40,000 Congolese fled hundreds of kilometers westward with Rwandan refugees to the city of Kisangani early in the year. More than 70,000 fled to Tanzania. Smaller numbers entered Uganda, Burundi, Sudan, Zambia, and other countries as refugees. As many as 10,000 former Zairian soldiers and their families reportedly fled to Central African Republic. In interviews with USCR and other agencies, displaced persons indicated that they fled during the civil war for various reasons: to escape generalized warfare, fear of Mobutu's retreating soldiers or the ADFL, fear of armed Rwandan exiles, and fear of Rwandan government soldiers. Some displaced persons said they were compelled to flee their homes by extremist Rwandan leaders who took them as virtual hostages. In the second half of 1997, after the main civil war ended, eruptions of violence in eastern Congo/Zaire pushed additional tens of thousands from their homes. Some 8,000 people converged on the town of Goma in late April. At least 15,000 fled to Rwanda. Entire areas of Masisi zone, in the east, lay deserted, with 15,000 homes burned and 1,000 people dead. Two USCR site visits to remote areas of eastern Congo/Zaire found that the needs of many uprooted Congolese/Zairians were the same as the needs of families who never left their homes. Decades of exploitation by the Mobutu government and isolation from the outside world had left much of the population destitute, whether at home or displaced. About 17,000 displaced persons who reached Kisangani received food aid there. Some 28,000 uprooted people in different parts of the country were receiving WFP food assistance in August. The relative lack of humanitarian aid reaching displaced and war-affected Congolese/Zairians raised local tensions toward Rwandan refugees in Congo/Zaire, who periodically received international assistance. The ADFL charged that international agencies had "abandoned" the local population. "War-affected Congolese deserve attention," a USCR report stated. "They should no longer be rendered invisible in their own country." A USCR report warned that food supplies in some areas were "extremely fragile" and that widespread population displacement early in the year had aggravated chronic malnutrition in some locations. USCR warned that the upheaval caused by the civil war might spawn new rounds of localized violence. A USCR report noted that ethnic tensions were worsening in parts of eastern Congo/Zaire, but that "widespread [local] support exists for reconciliation efforts." Uprooted Congolese/Zairians gradually trickled home in the last half of 1997. UN planes airlifted several thousand displaced persons from Kisangani to their home areas hundreds of kilometers away in the east. More than 10,000 Congolese/Zairian refugees in Tanzania repatriated with UNHCR assistance, and thousands more returned from Tanzania spontaneously, without direct help. USCR urged Congolese/Zairian officials to take more steps to encourage additional repatriation from Tanzania. "The government of Congo should publicly declare that Congolese refugees are welcome back to their country despite poor...conditions, and should provide adequate information to them," USCR stated. "Authorities should ensure UNHCR's ability to carry out monitoring activities for returnees." Many returnees from Tanzania received a one-month food supply upon arrival in Congo/Zaire, and reportedly received two months of additional food aid when they reached their homes. WFP mounted an airlift to provide seeds to some returnees. Several thousand Congolese/Zairian refugees spontaneously repatriated from Rwanda after the ADFL military victory. Most were ethnic Tutsi Congolese. New rounds of violence late in the year, however, forced some of them to flee again. In addition to the new refugees created during 1996-97, tens of thousands of Congolese/Zairians remained refugees from previous years. Rwandan Refugees‹Pre-1997 More than a million Rwandan refugees fled to then-Zaire in 1994, following a genocide and civil war in their own country. The overwhelming majority of refugees were ethnic Hutu. Their extremist leaders had committed the genocide in Rwanda against ethnic Tutsi and had lost the civil war. Many Rwandans fled to Zaire fearing retribution for the genocide, in which some of them participated. Others fled to Zaire because they were forced to do so by their own leaders, who were also fleeing. During 1994-95, and in the first nine months of 1996, only a small percentage of refugees repatriated. Conditions in Rwanda made some refugees afraid to return home, and a relentless campaign of intimidation and propaganda by refugee leaders effectively blocked others from repatriating. The refugees lived in a string of camps in eastern Zaire, close to the Rwandan border. Up to 50,000 former Rwandan soldiers and armed militia remained active in the camps, using the camps as bases to destabilize Rwanda and parts of Zaire. The intimidation and control exercised by the refugees' extremist leaders "created unusual security problems for refugees and relief agencies" in the camps, UNHCR reported at the time. When Congo/Zaire's civil war erupted in October 1996, refugee camps came under attack by ADFL rebels and Rwandan soldiers, who regarded the camps as military bases and targeted them for destruction. The violence dispersed the refugee population. An estimated 600,000 to 700,000 returned to Rwanda in the final weeks of 1996. At least 200,000 refugees headed in the opposite direction, deeper into forest areas of Congo/Zaire. Former Rwandan soldiers and armed militia members were mixed among the refugees. By the end of 1996, most Rwandan refugees remaining in the country were believed to be at three remote locations. Relief efforts were slowed by the area's poor infrastructure, insecurity caused by the war, and the continued presence of armed intimidators among the refugees. Rwandan Refugees‹Early 1997 The plight of Rwandan and Burundian refugees in Congo/Zaire during 1997 was "one of the worst dramas of our times," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata. Tens of thousands of Rwandans trekked several hundred kilometers through dense forests to stay ahead of advancing ADFL troops during the first half of the year. Several thousand marched about 1,500 km (nearly 1,000 miles) across the breadth of Congo/Zaire. Many NGOs referred to the Rwandans as the "lost refugees." Relief workers were hard-pressed to locate the refugees and provide them with aid and repatriation assistance. Uncounted thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, perished. The UN initiated a special investigation into reported mass graves scattered through the country. Uncertainty about the number of refugees remaining in Congo/Zaire still lingered at the end of 1997. At the beginning of 1997, up to 200,000 Rwandan and Burundian refugees and their leaders were clustered at three makeshift camps‹Lubutu, Amisi, and Tingi-Tingi‹in eastern Zaire. Tens of thousands of others were believed to be dispersed in smaller groups in the South Kivu region of eastern Zaire. Relief workers reported in January February that 20 to 30 Rwandans were dying per day at the Tingi-Tingi camp due to lack of food, malaria, diarrhea, and other illnesses associated with their march through the forest. UNHCR complained in January of "insurmountable logistical difficulties" caused by poor or nonexistent roads and airplane runways for food deliveries. WFP indicated that food transport costs to the remote camps cost an average of $1,600 per ton, eight times more expensive than normal for the region. Aid that managed to reach the camps sometimes failed to reach refugees most in need. UN workers on the ground alleged in February that the high death rate at Tingi-Tingi was partially due to "appropriation of food by Rwandan militia and ex-soldiers in the camps." An unofficial UN summary of the situation in late February reported that armed Rwandans "are said to have strong control over refugees" at Tingi-Tingi. The UN secretary general warned that militarization of the refugee population at Tingi-Tingi "puts at risk the lives of innocent refugees." The presence of armed elements among the refugees provoked controversy among international diplomats and humanitarian workers about the ethics of providing aid. UNHCR urged the international community to deploy troops to Tingi-Tingi to separate armed elements from the refugees, noting that "this enormously difficult task is not one that a humanitarian agency like UNHCR can undertake." Discussion of a multinational rescue force surfaced briefly in February, but was quickly shelved when the civil war overtook the three refugee sites in March. Most of the refugee population resumed its march deeper into inaccessible areas of Congo/Zaire. UNHCR appealed to combatants in Congo/Zaire to give relief workers access to the refugees "who have already suffered so much." High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata expressed the mounting frustration of humanitarian workers in March when she noted: "Since November, we have been practically chasing refugees from one encampment to another, trying to give them assistance as confrontation lines shift." UNHCR, UN, and U.S. officials called on the ADFL leader, Kabila, to open "humanitarian corridors" so that Rwandan refugees could escape the fighting and repatriate. By late March, tens of thousands of Rwandan refugees reached the Kisangani region of north-central Congo/Zaire‹more than 600 km from their original camps on the country's eastern border. About 200 refugees reportedly drowned trying to cross the Zaire River in mid-March. Thousands of others are believed to have died of poor health or at the hands of ADFL and Rwandan troops, or were slain by their own leaders while trying to escape. Local officials in Kisangani blocked the refugees from entering the city, partly due to security concerns. The refugees encamped along a railway line in the forests south of the city. ADFL soldiers initially blocked relief shipments despite appeals from UNHCR and others in the international community. The refugees south of Kisangani "have gone through a terrible ordeal," UNHCR said in late March. "They are malnourished, traumatized, and stricken with diseases." UNHCR urged ADFL leaders to end the refugees' "agony" by allowing a repatriation program. UNHCR officials were able to begin repatriation airlifts in March for scattered refugees who had been left behind in eastern Congo/Zaire. More than 1,000 repatriated by air in late March from abandoned refugee encampments such as Tingi-Tingi. Many of them were unaccompanied children and adults in extremely poor health. UNHCR and NGOs established way-stations in eastern Congo/Zaire's South Kivu Region for refugees seeking food or repatriation assistance. Rwandan Refugees‹Mid-1997 International pressure to aid, protect, and repatriate Rwandan refugees in Congo/Zaire increased in April. UNHCR characterized the dangers facing the refugee population in Congo/Zaire as "the most pressing asylum issue" in the world. Several UN agencies, including UNHCR and UNICEF, stated that they were "gravely concerned" because many refugees were "in appalling physical condition." ADFL rebels belatedly granted humanitarian agencies partial access to refugees encamped south of Kisangani in early April. Food shipments began to reach some refugee sites by truck and rail. Death rates among the weakened refugees remained five to ten times higher than normal levels, but far lower than the 100 or more deaths per day registered before regular aid arrived. Aid workers found about 3,000 children had become orphaned or separated from their parents during the long trek across Congo/Zaire. USCR conducted a site visit to the refugee encampments near Kisangani in April. "Refugees were literally living in mud," USCR reported afterward. "Among the skeletal figures roamed young Rwandan men in good condition, seemingly oblivious to children lying motionless at their feet." The UN's special human rights reporter for Congo/Zaire charged in April that ADFL rebels had engaged in massive killings of refugees since the beginning of the civil war. He urged the UN to assemble a forensics team to investigate about 40 sites of alleged mass graves scattered throughout the eastern half of the country. The UN Human Rights Commission made a similar recommendation. Bureaucratic delays by ADFL officials and local civilian authorities stalled efforts to begin a repatriation program for refugees near Kisangani, despite a pledge by ADFL leader Kabila that repatriation could commence. Some local officials insisted that the refugees should repatriate 600 km by road rather than by air. Anti-refugee broadcasts on local radio heightened local animosity toward the refugee population in late April. A half-million dollars' worth of aid supplies and nearly 200 tons of food were looted from a warehouse and relief train in Kisangani. In late April, ADFL troops attacked the refugee encampments near Kisangani and scattered the refugees into the forests. The death toll from the attack remained unknown, but relief workers feared that many died. Refugees later stated that Rwandan troops were among the attackers. The incident provoked an international outcry and hardened the resolve of UNHCR and aid agencies to repatriate refugees as quickly as possible. The UN secretary general said in late April that he was "shocked and appalled by the these refugees, most of whom are innocent." He accused the ADFL of pursuing a "slow extermination" policy against the refugees. The U.S. government stated that "there is a growing body of credible evidence that massacres have taken place in rebel-held territory," and warned the ADFL that "denial of humanitarian access cannot continue." A leading U.S. official warned that "the world will judge the [ADFL] on their attitude to these helpless refugees." UNHCR reiterated that "repatriation is the only solution for these people, the only way to guarantee their safety." UNHCR stressed that the ADFL rebels "have not been very helpful. It has been very frustrating, very difficult." Kabila responded to the international criticism by calling for an independent investigation. He complained that armed groups continued to permeate the Rwandan refugee population, "and yet they are still classified as refugees by the UN." ADFL officials allowed a repatriation airlift to begin from Kisangani, but they continued to block aid workers' access to some refugee areas. The airlift began in late April. It started tragically, however, when some 90 refugees died in early May while trying to board an overcrowded train headed to Kisangani for a flight to Rwanda. The repatriation airlift soon functioned smoothly, however, and nearly 40,000 refugees flew home by the end of May. Accounts of massacres continued to cause alarm about the safety of remaining refugees. UNHCR reported in May that "refugees continue to face major human rights violations and even summary execution." MÉdecins Sans FrontiÈres charged that ADFL and Rwandan soldiers in eastern Congo/Zaire were exploiting aid programs in order to locate and kill refugees still hidden in forests. A UN human rights report expressed alarm about massacres of refugees. The U.S. government called for "full and impartial investigation into the allegations of severe and consistent human rights abuses perpetrated against Rwandan refugees and Zairian Hutu." Rwanda's military leader, Paul Kagame, belatedly acknowledged that Rwandan government troops were deployed deep in Congo/Zaire, but denied they had engaged in wholesale massacres. He said Rwandan troops killed refugees inadvertently "as a result of war." USCR's site visits to Congo/Zaire, and its subsequent reports, noted credible accounts by refugees and Congolese of "gross violations" against refugees. "ADFL soldiers have hunted and killed Rwandan refugees," USCR stated in a June report. The report urged ADFL leaders to "allow unhampered access to Rwandan refugees" and to "immediately allow UN human rights experts to conduct investigations." USCR called on the ADFL to "provide full support...for the safe, voluntary repatriation of Rwandan refugees" still hidden in forested areas. In mid-1997, Rwandan refugees were believed to be in several general areas: south of Kisangani, scattered in eastern Congo/Zaire's South Kivu and North Kivu, several tens of thousands near the far western town of Mbandaka, and other groups of refugees headed northward toward Central African Republic and southward toward Angola. Armed Rwandans were reportedly mixed with the refugees in each area. Rwandan Refugees‹Latter 1997 Gradual repatriation of Rwandan refugees continued throughout the second half of 1997, as did efforts to investigate massacres. Despite an agreement with the new DRC government in June to establish a UN human rights investigation, the probe encountered constant delays by Congolese officials and began only late in the year. UNHCR reported in August that "we continue to receive reports that refugees are being persecuted or even killed in some areas." A UN human rights report in July cited accounts of at least 134 sites of massacres perpetrated by all sides in the Congo/Zaire conflict. The report charged that the ADFL and its allies committed most of the alleged massacres and were attempting to destroy evidence to frustrate an international investigation. A USCR report in December, based on an earlier site visit, repeated a call for the new DRC government to "cooperate fully with human rights investigations throughout Congo." USCR urged Rwanda and other neighboring governments to "facilitate a thorough UN investigation and punish gratuitous killings or other atrocities committed by their soldiers against noncombatants" in Congo/Zaire. UNHCR fielded more than 20 "search parties" in eastern Congo/Zaire to find hidden refugees and facilitate their repatriation. Many Rwandans, however, seemed to prefer to remain in hiding or to live among local Congolese/Zairians rather than return immediately to Rwanda. Only 12,000 refugees were receiving food assistance in September, according to WFP. Instability in northwest Rwanda in late 1997 forced new refugees to flee to Congo/Zaire. More than 4,000 Rwandans reportedly fled to eastern Congo/Zaire but were forcibly returned to Rwanda during September November. UNHCR criticized the expulsions and suspended its programs for Rwandan refugees. "The most basic conditions for protecting Rwandan refugees in the DRC have ceased to exist," UNHCR stated. "The total lack of even minimum conditions for delivering protection and assistance obliges us to suspend our operations related to Rwandan refugees." UNHCR added that "our efforts to help these people had been frustrated at every turn." DRC government officials responded by ordering UNHCR staff out of eastern areas of the country, though some UNHCR staff managed to remain. Radio broadcasts critical of UNHCR aired in some areas. USCR urged Congolese officials to facilitate rather than obstruct UNHCR's work. "The government's inflammatory statements regarding UNHCR operations...have seriously undermined UNHCR's ability to do its job," USCR stated. "The Congolese government should declare public support for UNHCR." As the year ended, the number of Rwandans still in Congo/Zaire remained unclear. Aid workers reported that they were "aware" of the probable location of about 20,000 Rwandans. Some human rights and humanitarian agencies continued to charge that 200,000 Rwandan refugees remained "unaccounted for" and probably dead in Congo/Zaire. UNHCR estimated that "tens of thousands" were unaccounted for at year's end. USCR urged UNHCR to rectify confusion about the number of Rwandan refugees who had been in Congo/Zaire before the civil war in order to clarify approximately how many refugees died or remained in hiding in 1997. "It is time for UNHCR to set the record straight," USCR wrote to UNHCR. "Questions about the number of Rwandan refugees remaining in Congo, and how many might have died, are serious policy issues that merit...special explanatory efforts." Refugees from Congo-Brazzaville Up to 50,000 refugees from neighboring Congo-Brazzaville fled to Congo/Zaire in the second half of 1997 because of an outbreak of warfare in their own country. Most arrived in Congo/Zaire by boat across the Congo River, which forms the border between the two countries. Some 35,000 settled in or near a designated camp in the vicinity of Kinshasa. Thousands of others lived with friends or relatives in Kinshasa. A vaccination campaign inoculated 3,000 refugee children in response to a measles outbreak at the camp. The refugee population began to repatriate in the final weeks of 1997. UNHCR provided blankets and kitchen utensils to many of the returnees prior to their departure from Congo/Zaire. An estimated 40,000 remained in Congo/Zaire at year's end. Refugees from Burundi Civil war and ethnic violence in Burundi had pushed an estimated 140,000 Burundian refugees into Congo/Zaire by late 1996. Most of the Burundians were ethnic Hutu. They lived primarily in eastern Zaire, in camps or in local communities near the Burundi border. The outbreak of civil war in Congo/Zaire in late 1996 forced the majority of Burundians to repatriate or flee to other countries, leaving approximately 40,000 Burundians in Congo/Zaire at the start of 1997. By the end of the Congo/Zaire civil war in mid-1997, the Burundian refugee population had dispersed to far-flung areas of the country. As many as 20,000 were near the city of Kisangani after trekking there with Rwandan refugees. A handful of Burundians traveled about 1,500 km to the far western side of the country, to Mbandaka. Thousands continued to live in South Kivu Region of eastern Congo/Zaire, largely integrated with the local population. The Burundian refugee population suffered some of the same protection problems that threatened Rwandan refugees in Congo/Zaire during 1997. Fearing retribution from ADFL or Rwandan soldiers, many Burundian refugees chose not to seek humanitarian assistance and sought to remain inconspicuous. Authorities of Congo/Zaire expelled nearly 3,000 refugees in late 1997. Several thousand others reportedly repatriated voluntarily late in the year because of continued unrest in eastern Congo/Zaire. An estimated 15,000 Burundian refugees remained in Congo/Zaire at year's end, although the number was difficult to judge because they did not live in camps. "The refugees typically live with host families or in one of the many abandoned homes" in parts of eastern Congo/Zaire, a USCR report stated in December. Refugees from Sudan Most of the estimated 60,000 Sudanese refugees in Congo/Zaire arrived in 1990-91 because of ongoing civil war in their own country. They settled into a remote corner of northeastern Congo/Zaire, where poor roads and vast distances made relief efforts difficult. Many of the refugees engaged in farming in three areas and rapidly became at least partly self-sufficient. Changes in Sudan's civil war during 1997 encouraged thousands of Sudanese to repatriate. Other Sudanese fled their refugee sites because of Congo/Zaire's civil war. Some repatriated to Sudan, others fled to different parts of Congo/Zaire or to other asylum countries. Those who repatriated reportedly suffered robberies and rapes during their repatriation journey. Refugees from Uganda An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Ugandan refugees lived in northeast Congo/Zaire at the start of 1997. Some 25,000 additional refugees fled temporarily to Congo/Zaire in mid-year because of an armed insurgency in western Uganda. Although some refugees arrived with machete wounds and malaria, most Ugandans arrived in good condition and quickly took up residence with local Congolese families. Many soon repatriated to Uganda because of food shortages in refugee areas or in response to rumors that violence would resume in Congo/Zaire. It is believed that about 10,000 Ugandan refugees, including both "old" and "new," remained at the end of 1997. Refugees from Angola An overwhelming majority of the estimated 100,000 Angolan refugees in Congo/Zaire at the start of 1997 were self settled, living in southwestern areas of the country. About 25,000 lived in three refugee settlements in Shaba Region. Most Angolan refugees were not in regular contact with UNHCR or aid agencies, and the effects of Congo/Zaire's civil war on the Angolan refugee population during 1997 is unknown. It is believed that several thousand might have repatriated to Angola, but no conclusive information existed at the end of 1997.  

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