'The last 12 hours were absolutely terrifying . . . shots were coming in from all sides.'

Mary Braid, in the Rwandan border town of Gisenyi, hears how Tutsi rebels were welcomed as saviours
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She stood, her baby on her back and two toddlers clinging to her legs. The nearby pile of blankets and a battered ghetto-blaster was all she had salvaged.

For more than a week the Zairean troops struggling to hold Goma against the advancing Tutsi rebels had threatened to kill Nyandwi Byirhwenda, 22, and her mother. Along with the harassment and threats of violence the woman had been terrified when the small artillery they had become used to was replaced by the sound of big guns.

As Zairean troops fled Goma yesterday, Nyandwi seized her chance. The homeless and dispossessed who gathered together in the shadow of Rwanda's magnificent volcanic mountains near the shores of Lake Kivu were mainly Zairean or Zairean Tutsis. Nyandwi joined more than 1,000 people who streamed into the Rwandan town of Gisenyi just across the border, hurried on their way by the sound of continuing gunfire.

Nyandwi told her story with great control, but she finally undid the shawl which secured her baby to wipe her own tears when she was asked where her husband was. "He threw me out because I am a Tutsi, and he is a pure Zairean," she said. "Yet my father was a pure Zairean, even though my mother is a Tutsi."

Her separation on racial grounds had come in 1993, before the mass exodus of a million Hutu refugees from Rwanda into eastern Zaire. There had always been local discrimination against Zaire's Tutsis but the influx of so many Rwandan Hutus, many with blood on their hands after the genocide of up to 800,000 of their Tutsi countrymen, escalated tensions.

Hutu extremists, using the UN's Zairean refugeee camps as a power base from which to hit at the new Tutsi-led Rwandan government, made local politicians more audacious. A few weeks ago they warned Tutsis who had lived in eastern Zaire for generations to leave or face extermination. The Tutsis chose another path, and for Nyandwi the rebels who yesterday seemed to have taken Goma arrived just in time. She stood among a crowd of refugees straining their eyes down the short stretch towards Goma, in the hope of spotting friends and relatives among those still straggling across the border. She cut a forlorn figure. But she was in no doubt that she had made the right decision in leaving. "I think it is better for us to live here now. It is safer for us. But I feel I am Zairean. I was born there."

Persecution by Zairean troops was a common story. Nunyakasi Kayijamie, 55, said he was jailed by Zairean soldiers last week just for being Tutsi. Like many who fled Goma yesterday, he saw the rebel Tutsi army which had released him from jail as saviours.

Mbavu Abasi, 39, said: "The Zairean soldiers had been visiting my house and beating my wife because she is Tutsi. I thought they were going to kill her. If they did not beat her they demanded money. The Banyamulenge [the Tutsi rebels] were saving people when they took the town. Everyone was desperate. "

"For a long time now we have been suffering at the hands of the Zairean troops. We are tired of the regime," said Mr Kayijamie, a Zairean, who left behind his shop, his home and most of his belongings. His own country's troops, he said, had been looting his home for weeks.

More than 100 aid workers were trapped in Goma before the Zairean troops began to pull out yesterday. The workers spent two hours lying face down on the second floor of a house in the centre of Goma after gathering together when an earlier UN attempt to rescue them failed earlier this week. Yesterday, after being rescued by a UN-armed escort, they said they had been lucky to escape with their lives. When they emerged from the house yesterday morning they found the bodies of three Zairean guards lying in the garden.

Michel Quintagli, information officer for the United Nations World Food Programme, said: "The last 12 hours were absolutely terrifying. We heard shots coming in from all sides. We did not know if we would be able to get out. This really lets you know what it's like to be a refugee. The question is what will happen to the 700,000 refugees left behind."

Aid agencies say the refugees, now relying on Zairean aid workers, have just two weeks supply of food left. However, few Hutu refugees were among those who crossed the Rwandan border yesterday. Many observers see their return home as the only solution to the instability in the region and believe that all but the worst perpetrators of the genocide could come back in safety.

But the 700,000 Hutus, terrified by warnings from their leaders that their return home will precipitate Tutsi revenge, are staying where they are. Yesterday a US diplomat said the UN was giving the Rwandan refugees a mixed message by recommending they return home and yet continuing to supply them with food. He warned against the permanent settlement of the Rwandan Hutus in eastern Zaire. Their threat to Rwanda would put the country on a permanent war footing with Zaire.