Hutu killers join Rwanda exodus

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The Independent Online
BUKAVU - Hutu killers, deprived of French protection, joined thousands of confused Rwandan refugees milling around border crossings into Zaire yesterday. A few thousand people were able to cross the Ruzizi river, marking the frontier.

Zairean paratroopers kept the main bridge closed. But in the afternoon, trucks ferried refugees over a second crossing into a new camp set up by relief agencies. Aid officials breathed sighs of relief that the refugee tide, triggered by the weekend withdrawal of French troops from a 'safe zone' in Rwanda, was not of the magnitude of an earlier exodus further north, which overwhelmed the Zairean town of Goma.

Hutu militiamen, who had terrorised civilians in the French zone, fled in panic for Zaire. But they failed to persuade most of the population to follow them. Hutu refugees in camps saw their departure as the end of a reign of thuggery. They ignored the militiamen's warnings that once the French had left, the Tutsi-dominated Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) would slaughter them.

'They told me I was a traitor if I stayed but I could not go,' Jean- Chrysostome Ruenkobatinya, a refugee who stayed in the Mata camp outside Gikongoro said.

'They told us the RPF would come and kill us but there are no RPF here. I am no longer afraid. They have gone and the RPF have not come.' Hutu soldiers and militiamen killed an estimated 500,000 people in Rwanda in April and May as a civil war based largely on tribal conflicts drew to a close. Fear of revenge by the victorious Tutsi minority sent vast numbers fleeing to Zaire and other neighbouring states.

Another wave of frightened Hutus caused chaos at the frontier with Zaire as French troops withdrew. But while Hutu militiamen tried to drive people in front of them to the border, the number who joined the latest march to Zaire was estimated at no more than 100,000 out of more than 4 million estimated to be living in the zone. The aim of the machete- weilding militia thugs seemed to be to enforce Hutu tribal solidarity, which would make Rwanda ungovernable by the RPF.

'These guys were the murderers in April and they are still murderers in August. They are forcing people to stay in camps where hundreds are dying,' said a worker with the international charity Medecins sans Frontieres. Unyielding Zairean troops and confusion among relief agencies delayed the crossing of thousands of exhausted Rwandan refugees into Zaire. But there was no repeat of the chaotic scenes at the weekend, when Zairean paratroopers fired into the air to stop refugees storming across after the frontier was closed.

By mid-afternoon, trucks ferried refugees along a muddy lakeside road to Hongo, where the US relief agency Care was setting up a camp to accommodate up to 80,000 people. The Ruzizi-1 bridge remained closed but Zairean paratroopers allowed refugees to pass over the Ruzizi-2 border post, 12 km (eight miles) away.

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