In an instant, the two-year, vice-like grip of the Hutu Interahamwe militia over more than a million refugees in Zairean camps loosened. And the United Nations was saved from a rescue operation that already had failure written all over it.
"The Interahamwe are going," said one returning refugee, Laurenti Nzainok, who fled Rwanda in 1994 in the wake of the Hutu genocide of 800,000 Tutsis. "They wanted us to go with them but most of us want to go home."
As they trudged together with ragged bundles of belongings, a woman was giving birth by the side of the road. "The leaders fled," said an old woman. "And after two years I'm going home."
The crucial act of defiance finally came yesterday morning when the Interahamwe, architects and overseers of the genocide, started to break up shacks in the Mugunga refugee camp and instructed people to follow them north-west, further into the forests of Zaire.
For two days, Zairean rebels had pounded the camp from the nearby town of Goma, spurred by the news that the world would not do what was necessary: disarm the militia men and separate them from the refugees who were their meal-ticket and front for attacks into Rwanda, and finally became their human shields.
This time, the masses, intimidated into staying by the occasional lynching and scare stories about Tutsi retribution, did not obey. Many had already trekked for days from other battle-torn refugee camps further north. Hundreds had perished on the way and in the fighting there was no time to bury the dead. Hunger, fatigue and human loss under intensive rebel offensives achieved what two years of gentle UN persuasion had failed to do. The refugees finally decided that they should take their chances back home.
The international community, forced this week by the Mugunga siege into launching a relief operation, will be delighted by the camp's unexpected spontaneous combustion. Even as the UN last night moved to authorise an intervention force, one of its greatest challenges was melting away.
Most Western governments understood that a break-up of the camps was vital for regional stability, but none was prepared to risk troops on the ground to dismantle them. The US insisted that neutralising the Interahamwe was not part of the UN mandate. Just how they were going to deliver aid to hundreds of thousands of refugees, held to ransom in a war-zone, was difficult to see.
The home-grown resolution may have come just in time. Yesterday, the World Health Organisation announced the first confirmed cases of cholera in Mugunga, which had been cut off from aid for two weeks.
Mugunga represents the largest single return of refugees to Rwanda. But from the start, smaller groups had trickled home. So far, their reintegration into a country now governed by Tutsis appears to have progressed well.
The UN has more than 100 human-rights observers in Rwanda. And while the Rwandan government argues that only those guilty of murder have anything to fear, events yesterday proved otherwise.
Most refugees were waved home by smiling rebels but 30 Hutu women and children were less lucky. They were ambushed on the outskirts of Mugunga hours before the exodus home.
If the refugee dam has indeed burst, what exactly is an international military force needed for now? President Clinton said last night that it was still required. The return of the refugees was "very good preliminary news", but, he warned, "we must be prepared . . . to have some presence there to facilitate this".
There is still an overwhelming need for humanitarian assistance - and the threat of war between Zaire on the one side and Rwanda and Burundi on the other.
Last night, Major-General Ed Smith, a Vietnam veteran tipped to head the American side of the UN operation, was asked whether there was any work for him to do now. The military man would not be drawn into a political statement. It was a "dynamic" situation, he said. But he was grinning from ear to ear.Reuse content