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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Debris Is All That Remains Of Camp

MUGUNGA CAMP, Zaire -- All that remained of the world's largest refugee camp was hundreds of dead rats, abandoned medical kits, burnt-out hovels and the debris left by hundreds of thousands of Rwandan Hutus.


Suddenly and against all expectations Mugunga camp emptied itself within hours Friday as, according to UN estimates, up to 400,000 refugees began the short trek back to Rwanda from the Goma border area of eastern Zaire. The refugees were finally able to leave after the feared Hutu Interahamwe militia and ex-government soldiers who had made Mugunga their base in exile after the 1994 genocide of Rwanda's Tutsi minority fled deeper into Zaire.


Before dawn the Hutu refugees gathered their few possessions, crossed the front line and set off eastwards to an uncertain future. By mid-afternoon from Mugunga camp to the outskirts of Goma town, a distance of some 8 kilometers, the road was blocked by hundreds of thousands of refugees, walking 10 abreast. Almost all were healthy and walking steadily. In Mugunga camp itself there was no sign of corpses -- victims of violence or disease.


But by the side of the road leading to the camp from Goma reporters saw 13 bodies lying in the ditch. In one group lay the bloated corpse of a beheaded woman with both arms chopped off. She was naked on top of a pile of seven bodies, jumbled amongst a collection of suitcases, shoes, mattresses and clothing.


These were all thought to be Hutu refugees who tried to flee Mugunga before the Interahamwe abandoned the area in the face of attacks by Zairean Tutsi rebels.


There were over 700,000 Rwandan Hutus in camps in the Goma region before the start of the rebellion over a month ago by Zairean Tutsis opposed to both President Mobutu Sese Seko and the presence of the Hutu refugees.


It may not be clear for days how many of the 1 million Hutu refugees in eastern Zaire have decided to throw in the towel. Tens of thousands are scattered south or west of Goma.


"There could be the total population of the camps moving towards Rwanda," said Ray Wilkinson of the UN refugee agency.


"The impasse has been broken. People are moving in the right direction. This is amazing and unstoppable and is not a replay of 1994 because very few of these people seem to be ill and there are no reports of any dead people yet," he said inside Mugunga camp.


But the camp was burnt, looted and ransacked. The ground was littered with paper, medical kits and hundreds of dead rats. Six hours of bombardment near the camp Thursday by Tutsi rebels close to Rwanda's new government seemed to have been the last straw for the Hutu fighters.