The urge to rush in can lead to disaster.
The world’s aid agencies had to be there, but the Government of Rwanda
wasn’t always pleased to see them and lots of people got left out.
John Le Fevre witnessed how easily things can go wrong.
In June this year more than 200 children were still living on a garbage dump five kilometres outside Kigali – despite the largest relief operation the world has ever seen. When I visited the children they said they had been living there for almost two years and had never seen a relief-agency representative, government official or doctor.
In scenes reminiscent of Manila’s in-famous Smoky Mountain, they earned a subsistence living sorting through the items discarded by the UN and relief agencies. As garbage-laden trucks ground their way up the twisting dirt road to the tip site, the children gathered in the swirling dust, smoke and flies, waiting for an opportunity to clamber aboard and scour through the putrid, rotting trash in search of items to eat or sell at the local market.
Theogen Nyunza – who claimed to be 15 but looked closer to 12 – said the children lived on the dump site because they had nowhere else to go: ‘All of our parents were killed in the war and here we can get food. It’s a good place, it’s safe and everyone looks after each other.’
He explained how the children slept under newspapers, cardboard or coffee sacks. During the day the elder children took items they had recycled from the trash to the market to sell. With the money they bought food and water to supplement what had been found in the trash.
‘We don’t go to the city because the RPA (Rwandese Patriotic Army) beat us and chase us if they see us,’ said Theogen. Before the war he was living with an older cousin, ‘but then the bombs started. I ran into the bush and never saw my cousin again. I stayed at his house after the soldiers left, but then the RPA came and took some of us to a refugee camp near Byumba.’ When the war ended he left the camp and went looking for his cousin. He couldn’t find anywhere to live and walked to Kigali, ending up at the dump site.
As another load of garbage arrived, Theogen ran off to clamber aboard the truck in search of something to eat. Minutes later he was standing on top of it waving two small cans of cheese, discarded from a French military ration pack.
Another young boy, Savimana, ran away from the Hutu soldiers during the war and when he returned to his village he was told his mother, father, brothers and sisters were dead: ‘There was no food and nowhere to live, so I came here.’
He said the older children looked after the younger ones, though every now and then one of them got very sick and died. When that happened the older children threw the body over the edge of the dump site: ‘Last month a boy about five and a girl about six died and we just put them over the edge of the cliff.’
They all said they knew about the aid agencies in the city, but claimed neither they nor the Government was interested in them. Theogen spoke to some people in the city once, who said they would come and do something: ‘They never came.’
For Edita and her ten-year-old son and baby Jenine, the relief operations had done nothing to improve her life. Pregnant when her husband was killed, she said her baby had never seen a doctor or anyone from a relief agency. Living in a borrowed hut just off the edge of the dump, some days she washed dishes and worked as a cleaner to get money, but there was not work every day.
‘Sometimes friends bring me some food, but today no-one came so when that happens I come to the dump. There is always food here,’ she said. When asked about Jenine she shrugged her shoulders and said the baby was not well. ‘Maybe she will live and maybe she will die: I don’t know.’
Members of the Canadian armed forces in the UNAMIR mission, however, certainly were aware of the children. Corporal Ron Riley, a materials technician from Newfoundland, said they had come to his attention about six months earlier, when a container of ration packs was found to be spoiled.
‘We sent the ration packs to the tip to be destroyed,’ he said, ‘and when the group set fire to them the kids were leaping into the flames trying to get the food to eat. We tried to tell them they were no good and to stop them but it didn’t make any difference. The next time we sent some up we had to send an armed escort to keep the kids away from the fire.’
Riley visited the dump a number of times after that and even took an interpreter with him. ‘I asked the kids what they wanted most and they said soap... and a big house where they could all live together and go to school. I couldn’t do anything about the house or school, but we were able to take them back some soap and clothes as well as some blankets and the like. I’ve spoken to a few NGOs but they all say they are too busy with other programmes.’
For its part, the Government made some fierce criticisms of the NGOs and expelled more than 40 – predominantly French – agencies.
‘It’s two years since the war ended and at one time there were more than 260 NGOs here,’ said Claude Dusaidi, chief political adviser to Vice President and Minister of Defence Major General Paul Kagami. ‘There are still 102 today. We can only guess where all of the money has gone, but it certainly hasn’t been to the Rwandese people... Every NGO here is driving around in new vehicles, living in big houses and paying themselves large salaries and for many the only business they are doing is raising more money to stay in business and pay themselves big salaries... We want to know where the money these organizations are getting is going, how it is being spent and what value the Rwandese people are getting out of it. If the NGOs don’t want to tell us, then they can leave – the same for the UN.’
According to John Palmer, Rwanda Director for the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), accusations that large amounts of money are being used for administration costs, salaries and overheads are simply not true. ADRA accommodated more than one person or family in all of its houses and bought second-hand vehicles if it could find them in good condition, he said. Most of the work was concerned with long-term development, though Palmer admitted: ‘It is difficult sometimes to state where development begins and relief (or emergency) work ends.’
Even if a catastrophe on the scale of the genocide in Rwanda is bound to leave some needs unmet, there is little in this dispute to suggest what mistakes have been made, what lessons have been learned by all the parties involved, or how the plight of the children living on the rubbish dump might have been alleviated more quickly.
John Le Fevre is a freelance photojournalist based in Sydney, Australia.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996
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