GOMA, Zaire -- The flow of Hutu refugees back to their homes in Rwanda increased yesterday to numbers so large as nearly to defy the imagination.
The line of humanity packed a two-lane road shoulder-to-shoulder, stretched through Goma and for more than 10 miles into Zaire. Those in that slowly moving line walked like an inexorable force into the Rwandan border town of Gisenyi and then beyond, toward their home villages.
"There is no question that we are overwhelmed," said Ray Wilkinson, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which ran the camps in eastern Zaire and has responsibility for the refugees' return.
"This, to use a well-worn phrase, is an event of biblical proportions."
It was happening beyond the control of any authority, as Zaire and Rwanda and international aid agencies were little more than onlookers to events, with the refugees returning to their homes apparently free from any threat to their security.
Their exodus began Friday after a militia that had controlled the camps fled under attack by Zairian rebels.
And the so-far peaceful return of refugees forced the United Nations and U.S. officials to reconsider plans for sending in a multinational force. U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry said the United States would consult with its allies after receiving a report this weekend from a survey team in the area.
Rwanda said that the refugee exodus meant the military force was obsolete before it was even deployed and that the world should send aid instead.
"Our position is that the force was coming to create this corridor for the refugees to come home, and now they are coming home. So we don't see any need for the force to come," said Joseph Bideri, Rwanda's presidential spokesman.
"What is happening on the ground is changing quickly, and the force will have to adapt as well," U.N. envoy Raymond Chretien acknowledged as he arrived in Kigali, the Rwandan capital.
But aid workers said intervention might still be necessary.
"I think it is still too early to tell," Brenda Barton of the World Food Program said here. "Even if all of these refugees return, there still might be 300,000 out there. The intervention force might be able to help with those."
Many aid agencies at first believed the huge number of refugees came from the emptying of the Mugunga camp, which had housed some 500,000 people.
But some of the refugees arriving in Goma had walked from the town of Sake, about 40 miles farther west, bringing with them TC clearer picture of a mass movement throughout eastern Zaire.
About 750,000 refugees came to the camps north of Goma in July 1994. They were Hutus, the majority tribe in Rwanda, fleeing a successful rebel movement led by the minority Tutsis.
Radical Hutu leaders had induced many in the population to join in a genocide against the Tutsis, killing an estimated 800,000 of them in April and May 1994.
Since then, those same radical leaders, many of them members of the civilian militia Interhamwe, kept the refugees from returning to Rwanda by a combination of physical intimidation and incessant propaganda that convinced many Hutus that they faced deadly retribution if they returned.
As a rebel movement led by Zairian Tutsis gained control of the area, the refugees headed west and south, often staying for weeks in the woods before making their way to Sake and Mugunga.
"We were in the woods for over a week," said Charles Alphonse, 28, as he crossed into Rwanda. He was separated from his wife and three children as they fled a refugee camp north of Goma.
"We ate fruits and roots that grow in the forest," he said. "For water we got mud from a swamp and squeezed it into our plastic jugs."
He spent the past two weeks in Mugunga camp, leaving yesterday for Rwanda.
When the Interhamwe gathered in Mugunga were defeated Thursday in a battle with the rebel Tutsis, their control over the refugees failed and the return began.
It is now thought that most of the 750,000 people from the Goma area camps are on their way back, while perhaps 100,000 others -- members of the Interhamwe and their families -- fled farther into Zaire.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 80,000 refugees crossed into Rwanda on Friday and 120,000 yesterday. The flow could continue for the rest of this week at this astonishing rate.
"To give you an idea of what we are facing, what we thought our system could sustain was around 10,000 to 17,000 people a day," Wilkinson said.
"And that's coming into the country, not through one border post. Now we are getting an estimated 15,000 people an hour at this one crossing point."
Indeed, though the vehicles of the various aid agencies continued to swarm around the snake of refugees yesterday, it was clear that this population was beyond the management of any authority. It was managing itself.
No longer are the refugees stopping at a camp just inside the Rwandan border for UNHCR officials to register them. Some still stop to refill jugs with water and search for some food, or to register their search for a lost child, but most simply walk on, into the town of Gisenyi.
They camped there last night to light fires, cook whatever food they had and sleep under plastic sheeting against the rain.
UNHCR plans call for the refugees from nearby areas to walk home, while others walk 15 to 40 miles to transit camps where trucks take them the rest of the way. But UNHCR -- with 170 trucks, each holding about 60 people -- would need weeks to transport the hundreds of thousands of people over twisting, hilly roads to their homes.
Most will undoubtedly just continue walking, heading home the same way they left the country two years ago.
Pub Date: 11/17/96