Rwandans retrace roads of death Refugees head home to unclear future after disease, hunger take toll in Zaire

July 31, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun Staff Correspondent

KIGALI, Rwanda -- They are coming back now, walking with their heads laden with bags and mats and food, slowly returning to the killing field they fled.

Their flight to Zaire had brought only a different kind of misery -- disease and starvation that killed them by the thousands.

They come along the winding mountain roads that lead into this capital city, once home to more than 700,000 people. A few days ago, it seemed nearly deserted.

By the end of last week, though, the markets were filling again with the sounds of commerce and the streets were beginning to come alive, even if the buildings remained mostly vacant, their windows shattered, their walls pockmarked with bullet holes.

The returning refugees are most visible on the road from Goma, the Zairian lakeside resort that became a disease-infested death camp when more than a million of Rwanda's 7.5 million people dashed desperately into it.

These refugees had fled the armies of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), finally victorious after a decade-long civil war.

"I prefer to go and die in my home country instead of dying in Zaire," said Leonard Ntibankundiye, 29, as he began the trek toward the Rwandan border. He was only a day's walk from his home. Many others, walking barefoot, were heading to Kigali, a two-week journey.

Like so many on the march, Mr. Ntibankundiye seemed almost resigned to his death, certain that if it did not come from cholera in Goma it would come at the hands of RPF troops in Rwanda, a certainty reinforced in his mind by the deposed government with much blood on its hands.

Like hundreds of thousands, he had heard the warnings broadcast by the toppled government from a radio station somewhere in Zaire.

"Even today they killed another 300 people," Paul Nzibukira said of what he had heard on the radio. He spoke standing in a fetid refugee camp north of Goma where the dead line the roadside and the dying are in almost every one of the makeshift shelters that climb the volcanic hillsides.

Someone in the crowd behind him mimicked cutting off his arms and pulling out his eyes, indicating how the RPF would treat them.

But on the road from Goma into Rwanda, the people walked peacefully past roadblocks manned by well-armed, disarmingly young RPF soldiers.

Thousands lined the road for miles from the border. But their numbers were dwarfed by those in the camps near Goma, an immense, nearly unimaginable crowd of refugees.

So the homecoming was just a trickle. It must turn into a mighty river if this small, beautiful mountainous country is to once again become one of the world's most densely populated nations.

If that is to happen, the country's new government must convince the refugees they will be safe at home.

Right noises

So far, the new government is making all the right noises, saying all the appropriate things, garnering praise from international observers that it hopes will eventually help inspire confidence in the people it aspires to govern.

"The ones that left were told that someone is coming to kill you, that the RPF is composed of killers, that you must run away or otherwise you will be exterminated," said Faustin Twagiramungu, the former head of an opposition party who is prime minister in the RPF's new government.

"If I am telling you a lion is coming and you are in the forest, what do you do? Do you stay there or run away? So that is what these people are doing because they are fearful of the RPF, but this is a lie."

Mr. Twagiramungu is a Hutu, a member of Rwanda's majority ethnic group. In the shorthand of Rwandan politics, the RPF is considered a Tutsi organization, representing the minority ethnic group, the country's traditional rulers who lost power in a bloody, ethnic-based revolution in 1963.

Most dead were Tutsis

Since then, ethnic violence has been the rule in Rwanda, never more bloody than in the wave of killings that began in April when 200,000 to 500,000 died.

Most of the dead were Tutsis, but many progressive Hutus died as well, victims of hard-liners in the Hutu-dominated government who sought to scuttle a planned accord with the RPF.

Prime Minister Twagiramungu recalls the dates of the various Rwandan massacres: 1959, 1963, 1967, 1972, 1973, 1990, 1992, 1993, now 1994.

The problem, he and other new government officials say, is that those killings went unpunished.

This time, they say, the reaction will be different.

"We don't want impunity in this country," he said. "Do people think they can have power after killing a half-million of our people? It must be closed as a chapter of political culture.

"We don't want a culture of hatred as a basis for taking power. We don't want impunity for those people. Impunity must be ended here."

He estimated that 32,000 government officials were implicated in the killings that began in April after a suspicious plane crash killed President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu.

Aside from government officials, the prime minister said, informal militias carried out many of the slayings, apparently after receiving orders.

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