Home at last - but no food or shelter

David Orr in Kivuye on the plight of Rwanda's returning refugees
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Pointing into the mist-covered valley, Celestin Ngendahayo indicated where his home used to be. As he and his family had returned to Kivuye only a few hours ago, he explained, he had not yet had time to visit the place but he had heard that the house had been destroyed.

The rain came down in sheets, all but obscuring the view of rolling hills. Huddled under the roof of a municipal building were hundreds of shivering men, women and children who had set out five days previously from Kibumba refugee camp in eastern Zaire. Beside them lay small bundles, some pots and pans. Many of them were barefoot; most of them looked exhausted.

"I'm happy to be back," said Mr Ngendahayo, a shawl wrapped around his shoulders against the cold. "I think we will be welcomed here. We have nothing to be afraid of. We still have friends in this commune and I hope we will be offered shelter until we have somewhere of our own."

Stuck on the wall behind him was a poster showing returning refugees being greeted at a border crossing by a smiling family, their hands outstretched in welcome. "Home in peace at last," read the message. "Let us build a new Rwanda."

In the past week, more than 4,000 people have returned to Kivuye, a northern Rwandan commune near the border with Uganda. Members of Rwanda's majority Hutu group, they have been in Zaire's teeming refugee camps for more than two years.

Some of the returning families were homeless, even before the genocide in 1994 in which at least half a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were butchered by Hutu extremists. Some were displaced by the fighting between the former government forces and Tutsi rebels which raged in northern Rwanda for years before the rebels finally routed their enemy and formed a new government in 1994.

Thus Mr Ngendahayo had been living with his wife and family in a succession of camps for the displaced inside their own country before going into exile in eastern Zaire. Who had destroyed their house - Hutu or Tutsi, former government soldiers or rebels - was not clear.

Mr Ngendahayo said he would have liked to have come home sooner but he was afraid of leaving Kibumba camp. Rwandan officials in the camp had told the refugees not to go home.

There have been fears of revenge attacks against returning Hutus by Tutsi survivors of the genocide and by members of the Tutsi-dominated army. So far, however, few violent incidents have been reported. But the Hutu returnees are not solely victims - some are culprits, too. Dozens, or hundreds even, have been arrested for their alleged part in the genocide of 1994; it seems certain that many more killers are still at large.

None the less, a soldier observing the crowd before him said he was glad to see the refugees returning home. He thought there would be no trouble, as people just wanted to get on with their lives.

"The real problem here will be food," said Francis Twagirayezu, a Kivuye official. "These people are weak and have nothing to eat. They will die if they don't have food and shelter soon."

As he spoke, Andy Ross, a British aid worker with the Care agency organised the distribution of a small consignment of high-energy biscuits he had transported up a dirt road in the back of his Land Rover.

"I've only got enough biscuits here for 1,250 people," said Mr Ross. "But we're planning on coming up again this weekend with proper supplies: maize grain, beans, oil and soap. We'll also bring up water, as the wells here are no longer working."

So far, more than half a million Rwandan refugees are estimated to have returned from Zaire during the past week and more are expected in the coming days. So massive has been the volume of returnees that the United Nations agencies have not been able either to register them or to distribute food.

Their speedy return to their commune has been hastened by the Rwandan government which wants to avoid the formation of more camps, inside or beyond its borders. In some cases the government's zeal has led to blatant human rights abuses.

"The Rwandan army has cut at least two water-pipes along the road from Ruhengeri so that returnees could not stop to drink," an aid official said. "Soldiers have also been preventing people from receiving rations at the way-stations on their route."

The planting season is now under way but the harvest will not be until March. Even before the mass return of refugees, the country's resources were depleted and overstretched. Now the situation is critical.

Once the homecomers have been registered in their communes, the distribution of UN relief supplies will begin. Food will be delivered for three months. Plastic sheeting and other survival necessities will also be handed out to the needy.

"Land is not so much an issue as housing," says Christine Umtoni, Assistant Minister for Rehabilitation and Social Integration. "A refugee is guaranteed to get his property back within two weeks of his return if there is someone else living in it. It's the families who will be forced to vacate properties who will have the real difficulties. The lack of housing is worse in the town. Less than a thousand new houses have been built in Kigali since the genocide."

It is believed that up to half of those returning will find their homes occupied. Many others, like Mr Ngendahayo, will find they have simply been destroyed.

n Geneva - Western aid chiefs, donors and relief agencies met to co- ordinate relief efforts for eastern Zaire as Rwanda said it would need $700m (pounds 420m) to resettle the returning Hutus, Reuter reports. In Stuttgart military commanders are considering an armed intervention force to bring aid to Rwandan and Burundian refugees in Zaire.