Heavy spring rains have started to fall on central Africa, bringing the promise of another year of life to peasant farmers in the region. However, for the masses of Rwandan refugees in eastern Zaire already ravaged by civil war, genocide, and cholera, the onset of the monsoons is a new nightmare come true.
As storms that will last on and off through next May gather, refugee families huddle inside the tiny grass, bamboo, and mud shelters that clog the landscape around the border town of Goma. The hovels that lack plastic sheeting—a valuable and thus highly stealable commodity—are frequently damaged by the wind and rain. This is the least of the refugees’ worries. Human waste does not get absorbed into the black volcanic bedrock of Goma and the rains turn the camps into stinking swamps. The stench is unbearable and aid workers fear new epidemics of dysentery as well as pneumonia and malaria.
Meanwhile, several kilometers and a few rolling hills away in Rwanda, the rains, which would normally mark the new planting season, go unheeded. Fields full of sorghum, maize, cassava, and sweet potatoes rot in wet soil. For weeks the crops waved in the breeze waiting to be picked or cut down, but there was no one to harvest them. It is already too late even to prepare for next year.
In a country the size of Wales where a shortage of land has been at the core of the Hutu-Tutsi struggle, parts of the Rwandan countryside are entirely empty. It is possible to drive through vast stretches of Rwanda without seeing a single soul. In the less than three months between April and July, much of Africa’s most densely populated country has become a hollow, windswept land of rolling hills and smoking volcanoes.
Where there are people, they live in ghost towns or in displaced persons camps where they are looked after and fed by foreigners. In rural areas controlled by the victorious Tutsis of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which has formed the country’s new government, there are farmers and soldiers and hardly anyone else: few if any shopkeepers, no barbers, no street vendors, no officials. There are no police, no courts, no judges, no law. The capital of Kigali still has less than half its 350,000 pre-war population.
What is remarkable about this emptiness is that for Rwandans land is everything. In an overpopulated country with a subsistence economy, fear of losing your shamba—your small parcel of land—is like fear of death. Nevertheless, at least two million Rwandans have chosen exile and death over land. Ignoring calls to return by the new, mainly Tutsi, government, the refugees, almost exclusively Hutus, remain in the camps which were until recently stacked with the bloated dead bodies of cholera victims.
According to the best estimates of the overwhelmed relief agencies in Goma, at least 50,000 people have died from disease since they first crossed into Zaire at the head of an RPF advance in mid-July. Those…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.