By yesterday afternoon - a day after the spontaneous return started - 200,000 refugees had passed through a "humanitarian corridor" of their own, not the United Nations', making. And still they kept coming.
As the refugees trudged from the Zairean town of Goma into Gisenyi, across the border in Rwanda, the Zairean Banyamulenge rebels were still pursuing deep into the Zairean forest the Hutu militias who had prevented the refugees' return home. It was the rebels' fierce bombardment of Mugunga refugee camp 10 kms from Goma that had led to the break-up of the camp. The sound of artillery could be heard in the distance as the Interahamwe Hutu militia, who for so long controlled the destiny of the refugees, continued their retreat.
The refugees' return is another astonishing episode in a story of epic, biblical proportions. Rwanda came to the world's attention in 1994 when the Interahamwe incited the majority Hutus to genocide. In less than three months more than 800,000 minority Tutsis were macheted and bludgeoned to death. Afterwards the Interahamwe led two million Hutus into exile in Zaire and then, while the international community stood uselessly by, they used UN refugee camps to regroup, re-arm and launch attacks into Rwanda.
Rwanda's story is crammed with epic events. When the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) won the civil war in 1994 thousands of Rwandan Tutsis, raised in Ugandan refugee camps, returned home, driving hundreds of thousands of cattle before them. Rwanda's Tutsi-led government backed the ethnic Tutsi Banyamulenge rebels in eastern Zaire who have succeeded in dismantling the militarised refugee camps. The international community had refused to do anything about these camps, and the apparent ending of the problem will only increase Western admiration for the new Tutsi- led government - particularly when the home-grown solution may have saved the UN from another military intervention disaster.
The crisis in eastern Zaire arose precisely because the UN ignored the warnings of its own staff that the string of camps along the Zairean-Rwandan border had been hijacked by the Interahamwe. In addition, the influx of two million Hutus, under the control of armed mass murderers, in a region that already had a complex and precarious ethnic balance, threatened the stability of the entire region.
The Interahamwe brought racist hatred with them. They encouraged persecution of the local Zairean Tutsis, the Banyamulenge. "The Interahamwe swaggered around the camps from day one and the old Rwandan army still wore their uniforms," recalls one senior aid official. "It was clear they were armed. Their plan was to re-take Rwanda and they taxed the rations and wages of the refugees, many of whom worked for the UN and NGOs." John le Point, a senior aid worker in Gisenyi, said: "It would have been no different if the Nazis had fled en masse to Austria in 1945 and the Marshall Plan had been used to assist their stay there."
The UN would have compounded past mistakes with its planned military intervention, had events on the ground not moved much faster than it does. The arrival of the international cavalry would have scuppered chances of a lasting solution. The military force had no UN mandate to disarm the militias or separate them from their people. In six months the world would have faced the same humanitarian crisis.
Yesterday Pierre Rwigema, Rwanda's Prime Minister, appealed to the UN to stop its planned military intervention and use the money to support the reintegration of refugees in Rwanda. President Bill Clinton said it was too early to conclude that the refugee crisis was solving itself. The UN is like a giant juggernaut; slow to start but once it is going just as impossible to stop or switch direction.
As the refugees flooded to the border yesterday aid workers gave up trying to register them and camps could not cope with the numbers. The UN force was supposed to open up corridors and reach the refugees. The needs are quite different now.
Rwanda must now resettle more than a million people if all the refugees return. The Hutus must come to an accommodation with the Tutsis whom their leaders - and a significant number of ordinary people - attempted to exterminate. Feeding and housing the returnees is an immense task; bringing together a divided and wounded nation a monumental one. But the future of Rwanda depends on it.
Most refugees will be expected to return to their old villages and to neighbours they betrayed. Many will go home to find their houses occupied by Tutsis. In the past two years refugees have trickled home and the Rwandan government has passed laws which will help them reclaim their homes. Yesterday's massacre of 30 women and children during the break-up of Mugunga camp shows that Hutus do face risks. But the Rwandan government's message that the Interahamwe and their political masters - not ordinary Hutus - were to blame seems to have penetrated. Jean, 29, a Tutsi engineer, will marry next weekend. In church his family will amount to one brother. He was studying in Switzerland when the massacres took place, and lost four siblings his parents and grandparents
"I think myself lucky to still have one brother," he says. "Many of my friends were left with no one." Those friends include Hutus, for wealthy and moderate Hutus perished too.
The crime was so huge and guilt so widespread Jean doubts justice will be done. "I know the people who killed my family but the authorities say what can they do? The jails are already full."Reuse content