Goma (AP) - Thousands of Hutus returned to their refugee camps yesterday after Zaire stopped expulsions to Rwanda and Burundi, United Nations officials said, easing fears of a new humanitarian disaster.
It was unclear for how long the Zairean army had stopped the forced repatriation of refugees along its eastern border. "We are currently seeking assurances that this suspension will continue tomorrow," said Chris Bowers, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Goma.
The UNHCR negotiator, Carrol Faubert, met the Zairean Prime Minister, Kongo Wa Dondo, in Kinshasa to formalise the suspension, the agency's spokesman, Ron Redmond, said in Geneva.
In Zaire, aid workers with loudspeakers took to the hills to persuade tens of thousands of Hutus who had gone into hiding to return to their camps.
Zaire army colonels in Bukavu and Uvira said that the expulsions had stopped, UN officials said. Troops did not show up at camps near Goma to continue the forced repatriations as expected.
"The refugees have started to stream back in their thousands to all 11 camps at Uvira. Some are starting to rebuild their huts," said Fernando Del Mundo, a UNHCR spokesman in Geneva. Thousands of others, he added, had begun to return to their camps in Bukavu.
The expulsions halted as abruptly as they began last Saturday, when Zairean troops entered the massive refugee camps and forced residents at gunpoint on to buses or on foot to cross the borders. Some huts were torched and there were unconfirmed reports of rape and theft by Zairean soldiers.
By Thursday, more than 13,000 people had been sent home and 173,000 fled into the Zairean countryside with scant food and water. Aid officials feared outbreaks of disease and starvation.
Peter Kessler, a UNHCR spokesman in Nairobi, said the expulsions by Zaire might revive the agency's voluntary repatriations, which have become bogged down because of refugees' fears of being killed if they go home. "The Zaireans clearly sent a message to the refugee community that asylum fatigue is setting in a big way," said Mr Kessler. "We think clearly most of the people can go back to Rwanda. Most are not guilty of participating in the genocide."
Mr Bowers said there is evidence, including confidential letters from camp leaders to the UNHCR, that a good number of the 170,000 refugees in one camp near Goma are willing to return home. The International Organisation for Migration, an intergovernmental agency working with the UNHCR, said it was making plans to help in the voluntary return of 2,000 to 3,000 Rwandans per day. It has 135 trucks and buses with capacity to transport 6,000 people per day.
Zaire has been awash with Hutu refugees since July 1994, after Tutsi- led rebels captured Rwanda and toppled the extremist Hutu regime that orchestrated the genocide of about 500,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Officials have complained that the 1.8 million refugees in the country, the highest refugee total in the world, have disrupted life in border areas and caused environmental damage. Zaire also viewed the refugees as a major security risk after the UN lifted an arms embargo against Rwanda last week.
Zaire feared that battles between the Tutsi-led Rwandan government and Hutu extremists in the refugee camps would erupt on its side of the border.