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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Sea' of Refugees Returns to Rwanda

GOMA, Zaire -- A huge mass of refugees trudged through the east Zaire town of Goma on Friday towards the Rwandan border after fleeing fighting between Zairean rebels and their Hutu foes, witnesses said.


"There is a sea of people right up to the horizon," said photographer Peter Andrews.


"There could easily be 100,000 of them. They are walking back to Rwanda," he said.


The refugees, believed to include both Zaireans and Rwandan Hutus, are part of the 1.2 million scattered around eastern Zaire by a one-month rebellion.


Zairean rebels checked them for weapons and let them walk the few kilometers toward the Rwandan border at Gisenyi. It was not clear if all the refugees came from Mugunga camp where thousands of armed Hutus -- ex-Rwandan soldiers and Interahamwe militiamen -- have until now prevented ordinary Rwandan refugees from returning home.


In Geneva, the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, said at least 10,000 Rwandan Hutus had crossed into Rwanda and said some 100,000 more were on the way.


UNHCR spokesman Fernando del Mundo said by the end of Friday, 100,000 Rwandan Hutus could be on the Rwandan side of the border.


He said tens of thousands of local Zaireans displaced by the fighting further west in the Sake region northwest of Goma were also heading for Goma town, but there were no reports that they too may be fleeing into Rwanda.


"We are gearing up to receive these people in Rwanda. We expect at least 100,000 Rwandan refugees in Rwanda by the end of the day," he said.


Several of the refugees interviewed said they came from Mugunga and the camp was now empty.


"We left Mugunga an empty camp, we all fled because of the fighting yesterday," said Vincent Nzehsi. "There are no militia in the camp, they are all in the forest."


"I came from Lac Vert," said Ernest Habinhege. "I am going back to Gisenyi in Rwanda. The camps are empty."


Friday's mass movement took place as the UN Security Council prepared to vote on a resolution to send a multinational force to help an estimated 1.2 million Hutu refugees from Rwanda and Burundi scattered across war-ravaged eastern Zaire. "They tried to get us to stay but all of us left the camp and are going home to Rwanda," said Jean-Marie Vianna, pushing a bicycle with one hand and holding a flapping turkey by its neck in the other.


He had an enormous bundle on his head containing plastic sheeting, firewood and an umbrella.


"The forces fled after the fighting, they left dead in the camp but after two years I am going home," said an old woman.


A woman gave birth at the roadside as hundreds of refugees streamed past.


The movement was good news for the international community which, wary of the hazards posed in the lawless region, had warned they would not take on the armed Hutus -- members of Rwanda's defeated ex-army and the dreaded Interahamwe militia.