Refugees trek back to Rwanda Tens of thousands pack road leading to border crossing

Action comes as surprise

Hutu militia flees, freeing remainder to leave Zaire camp

November 16, 1996|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GISENYI, RWANDA REUTERS CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — GISENYI, Rwanda -- The Hutus began swarming home to Rwanda yesterday, taking an anxious world by surprise.

By the tens of thousands they left war- and disease-ridden eastern Zaire in a mass migration rivaled only by their flight in the opposite direction two years ago.

They came in numbers that were too high to count, perhaps reaching into the hundreds of thousands, walking through the streets of the Zaire town of Goma to a small border crossing where the flag of Rwanda fluttered in the breeze.

Their possessions were carried on their heads, forming a nearly solid mass of dirty gray bundles as far as the eye could see, undulating along the road that led to the Rwandan border town of Gisenyi.

Their faces showed fatigue and hunger and their determination to go home.

These people walked in an eerie, tired silence punctuated by the cries of babies as storm clouds gathered around the volcano that towered above them.

A rainbow shone briefly, and then the rains came down heavily.

And still they walked, into the darkness, crowding into a refugee camp at the border. Designed to hold only 15,000 people, the camp swelled to several times that size last night.

They answered the question that has troubled government and aid groups for several weeks -- what has happened to the estimated 1 million refugees who were living in eastern Zaire?

Mass starvation had been predicted since the refugees were driven from their camps in the wake of a civil war that swept through the eastern part of Zaire and put them out of reach of the aid that has sustained them since they left Rwanda two years ago.

The ones who arrived in Rwanda yesterday came from the Mugunga refugee camp that has been crowded with refugees from a number of camps around the town of Goma.

Those camps had been abandoned as fighting in Zaire's civil war came close. Refugees packed Mugunga with perhaps 500,000 people, about half of all the refugees in Zaire.

Mugunga had became the last stronghold of the Interhamwe, the radical Rwandan Hutu militia held responsible for the 1994 slaughter of some 800,000 Rwandans -- mostly members of the Tutsi tribe.

The Interhamwe held forceful sway over the refugees, compelling them to stay rather than return home to Rwanda. But their sway ended astonishingly Thursday afternoon.

After losing a battle to the rebel forces that control Goma, the Interhamwe told the refugees that they must move again.

But this time the refugees refused. Food supplies had run out. Most had not eaten in days.

"All I have had to eat is the leaves of sweet potatoes," said Mufafhende Uwimana, 28, who sat down in exhaustion, her two young children nearby, just after crossing into Rwanda. "I had to beg for those."

"They wanted to take all the refugees to Mafisi," said Joseph Barabuka, 46, who walked across the border with his wife and six children. Mafisi is west of Goma.

"The Interhamwe didn't have any food. So it was better for us to go home."

When the refugees woke up yesterday morning, the Interhamwe were gone. They had headed north with their families, about 120,000 people in all, leaving the bulk of the refugees behind.

The refugees moved in an organized mass, just as they left the country in July 1994. They started walking the eight miles from Mugunga to the border and first began arriving in Rwanda in a trickle around 9 a.m. Within an hour, the trickle had turned into a flood that continued all day.

"It was like the chains had been holding them had been broken," said Brenda Barton of the World Food Program, which was scrambling last night to distribute food to this huge number of people.

Though hungry, the refugees did not appear to be near starvation. The fact that clean water apparently remained available in Mugunga contributed to the group's relative good health.

In Goma, U.N. refugee agency spokesman Ray Wilkinson said Mugunga was empty, apart from rats and corpses: "In one area we discovered 26 dead people, all women and children apart from one man, machete-ed to death with their heads split open."

Reporters saw 13 more bodies in a ditch by the road to Goma. One woman, decapitated and with her limbs cut off, lay in a

tangle of bodies and belongings.

The Tutsi-dominated Rwandan military awaited the Hutu refugees, determined to catch potential fighters among them. They stood at the border and searched every bundle, looking for weapons.

But, though the Interhamwe had told the Hutu refugees they would face certain death if they returned to Rwanda, the refugees showed no fear of those conducting the searches.

There seemed to be no guns among the meager belongings of the refugees. They carried only the essentials of their tragic existence -- pots, blankets, tarpaulins, even firewood.

Many, however, did discard any paper that might identify them as they crossed into Rwanda.

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