Zaire: Deadly hatreds War: Genocidal ethnic rivalries, a million refugees abandoned by Western aid agencies, and a dictator too ill to exercise his power, all threaten to create a tragedy for two African countries.

November 10, 1996|By Michael Hill and Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Michael Hill and Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CYANGUGU, Rwanda -- In the still of a rainy season afternoon, as storm clouds loom, the refugees appear, their clothes dirty and tattered, their faces tired and worn, a few possessions in bundles on their heads, babies strapped to the backs of young mothers.

A ragtag group of about 50 leads the way down the steep paved road to the bridge over the Rusizi River that is the border between Zaire and Rwanda, two countries edging perilously close to an African apocalypse.

These are but a handful of more than a million hungry, thirsty and disease-threatened refugees hiding far beyond the reach of aid agencies that fed many of them while hoping they would return home to Rwanda despite their fear of being slaughtered there.

Now the fugitives from a new civil war have scattered like ants throughout the region. As the United Nations Security Council yesterday called on its members to lay the groundwork for a multinational force to help feed the hungry, more refugees were in flight inside Zaire and crossing into neighboring Rwanda and Burundi.

For almost an hour, the straggling line of desperate humanity files across the small iron bridge, to what they can only hope will finally be safety. The last to cross is an old woman leaning heavily on a stick.

These are Rwandan Hutus ending their fearful exile in Zaire in a pathetic but relieved homecoming. Their decision to return home to neighboring Rwanda, from which they fled in fear of their lives two years ago, was, in the end, not difficult.

"In that forest there is nothing to eat," said Aloys Finigenga, 34. His group spent six days in the wilderness after the new civil war came perilously close to their refugee camp in Zaire. "So we had two choices, either die of hunger or come out and find our way back home."

Finigenga said he only drank water.

Finding decent surface water is difficult in these volcanic hills and there are fears of a repeat of the cholera epidemic that killed 40,000 in the Goma area of Zaire when the refugees left Rwanda in 1994. But Finigenga said his group was near enough to the Zairian town of Bukavu, on the other side of the river, to find water taps near the roads.

With him were 210 other Hutus, a tiny fraction of the estimated one million refugees -- 300,000 believed to be in the Bukavu area -- many wandering in the woods of Zaire.

Only about 2,000 have returned across the bridge between the Rwandan town of Cyangugu and Bukavu since fighting broke out three weeks ago between Zairian government forces and rebels led by Zairian Tutsis.

This group fled from the Inera camp, which housed about 45,000 refugees 15 miles north of Bukavu. They had been on the move for six days since the sounds of fighting began to fill the air as Zairian rebels approached the camps filled with the Hutus they hate.

The camp was not attacked. But Emmanuel Semana, 25, said that after discussing their options, he and other Hutu refugees decided to head for Bukavu and cross the bridge home.

Tutsi kindness

Until now they had been too frightened to go home, fearing death at the hands of the Tutsis now ruling in Rwanda. Soon they were set upon by local Zairians who robbed them of most of their meager possessions -- the extra food that was handed out in the camps when the rebels approached, blankets, clothes, cooking pots, plates.

Virtually all the refugees had to walk barefoot because the Zairians stole their shoes. "It's the way they are," Isaac Bigilimane said of the Zairian thieves. "We could not fight back because we are refugees. You must not fight because you are a foreigner."

Bigilimane had managed to hold on to some of his prized possessions, a blanket, an umbrella and a well-worn Bible and hymnal.

He and the others kept walking until they reached the lines of the rebel force, the Banyamulenge, ethnic Tutsis who have lived in Zaire for generations.

Then came a surprise.

"They treated us nicely," Semana said. "They gave us rice for the children and the old people. They told us that if we crossed their lines we had to go back to Rwanda. Otherwise they would chase us away."

The group crossed the Tutsi line and kept walking for two more days until they reached this bridge to Rwanda. On the other side, representatives of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees showed up within minutes of the refugees' arrival.

Most of the group sat beneath a tree next to the river, resting while awaiting transportation to a refugee transit camp, the next step on their way home. They looked tired and dirty, but basically healthy.

The waiting doctors know that they are still seeing the healthy refugees, that those who come later are more likely to show the effects of lack of food and water.

Return or starve

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