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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rwandans in Hiding Returning to Camps

NGARA, Tanzania -- Thousands of Rwandan refugees who had fled into the bush to escape being sent home have been streaming back to the camps they had abandoned, a United Nations official said Tuesday.


The exodus is concerning aid workers, who say the weak are dying of hunger, thirst and exhaustion. Anne Willem Bijleveld, co-coordinator of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Ngara near the border with Rwanda, said up to 5,000 refugees were returning to Kitali and Keza camps each hour.


"They have just been sitting there for two days, and the vulnerable were starting to die,'' Bijleveld said of earlier returnees. She estimated 50,000 refugees were either inside the camps or milling around in nearby countryside.


"People are being manipulated, and they have been moving round in circles for nothing,'' Biljleveld said.


The refugees are being manipulated by extremist Hutu militia known as Interahamwe, which had earlier forced refugees to leave the camps but ordered them not to go to Rwanda.


Tanzanian authorities Tuesday lifted a ban that kept aid workers out of the camps. But they warned them to feed only people from Burundi. Refugees from Rwanda are expected to go home.


Burundians have been fleeing their homeland for nearly three years to escape fighting between the Tutsi-dominated army and Hutu rebels.


Tanzania opposes the Burundian military, who seized power July 25. Government officials say that in Burundi, unlike Rwanda, ethnic and political violence is too rampant to permit a safe return of the refugees.


Women balanced bundles on their heads and men pushed bicycles piled high with possessions as an orderly exodus of Hutu refugees spilled down the road from Tanzania to Rwanda.


Refugees were crossing at an average rate of 10,000 an hour Tuesday, and aid workers estimated 100,000 people would cross the border by the end of the day -- the same number that crossed Monday. An estimated 535,000 are expected to move by the end of the week.


Carrying ducks and chickens, herding goats and cows, the refugees crossed into their home country after 2 1/2 years in refugee camps.


Some took shortcuts through fields of bright yellow sunflowers, surging across the border at an average rate of 10,000 an hour. Bicycles loaded with goods were pushed -- there was no room for riders. A baby was strapped atop a load on a wheelbarrow. Women in labor stopped by the roadside to give birth. Aid workers said 25 babies were born Sunday on the road to Rwanda.


The refugees -- ordered to leave Tanzania by Dec. 31 -- are the largest group to return to Rwanda since hundreds of thousands of Hutus came home from Zaire last month.


Red Cross spokesman Carl Naucler said he thought nearly all the Hutu refugees in Tanzania will return to Rwanda by week's end.


At one point, Red Cross workers with mechanical counters were clocking 330 refugees a minute crossing the bridge over the Kagera River that forms the boundary between the two countries.