The tragedy became apparent as the train pulled into Kisangani in north- eastern Zaire yesterday evening when the surviving refugees clambered out of the wooden, open-topped carriages and bodies of the dead spilled out on to the tracks. Others were found lining the bottom of the carriages. It appeared that the carriages had been so tightly packed that some of the dead had been standing upright when the train arrived, wedged among the living.
One aid worker said: "This is one of the most horrific scenes I have seen in my years of relief work in the Third World." The timing of the tragedy was made more distressing, coming on the day when peace in Zaire seemed at last a distinct possibility.
Yesterday, President Mobutu Sese Seko agreed to stand down as ruler of Zaire when a ceasefire had been agreed, a transmission of authority established and elections held for the presidency. His decision came during talks with the rebel leader Laurent Kabila on the South African ship, SAS Outeniqua and marked the end of an era for the vast African nation.
The train in which the refugees died had taken two hours to travel 25 miles from Biaro camp to Kisangani. The rebel authorities had told the UNHCR officials to expect around 2,800 refugees but it was clear that the six open-topped carriages carried hundreds more than that.
Survivors said thousands of refugees had swarmed on to the train as it pulled out of a station near Biaro. In the crush, the weak, children and dozens of desperately ill adults were forced to the bottom of the carriages where they suffocated or were crushed to death.
Those watching the arrival of the train in Kisangani were unaware that under the thousands of standing refugees lay the bodies of dozens who had died during the short journey. Three photographers who had travelled in the engine compartment of the train had no idea of the tragedy unfolding in the carriages behind them.
"Only when we got off could we see what happened," said Stephen Ferry, an American photographer on board the train. "At the beginning of the journey we could see some people shouting for us to stop. We told the driver but he said no problem.
"After that the journey seemed fine ... actually we and they seemed glad to be leaving the camp."
At Kisangani train station, aid workers pulled those still alive from the jumble of limbs and bodies in the wagons. A UNHCR spokesman, Paul Stromberg, called on the rebel authorities to allow more co-operation between aid organisations and the local administration to co-ordinate the evacuation of refugees and so prevent such tragedies happening again.
"We need to have control of the trains if we are to be responsible for them," he said.
Aid officials have complained that they have not had control over the evacuation of the refugees from the camp despite promises of co-operation from the rebel leader, Mr Kabila.
Rebel officials, criticised for their part in an attack on refugees at the camp two weeks ago, have since been loading thousands of refugees on to an old narrow-gauge train and dumping them at Kisangani station. The numbers arriving have overwhelmed the UNHCR.
The refugees, remnants of over one million Hutus who fled Rwanda in 1994 to escape reprisals for the genocide of over 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, fled west deeper into Zaire when the rebels began their offensive last year.
Biaro and nearby Kasese camp have held up to 80,000 Rwandan refugees but some are still in the forests where they fled after the attack on the camp. Thousands are now drifting back.
More than 60 refugees died overnight at Biaro, officials said, and hundreds more will die in the next few days unless medical facilities are swiftly improved.
A further 1,132 refugees flew to Rwanda's capital, Kigali, earlier yesterday, bringing the total since the airlift began to 5,035.
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