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Rebels inherit the wind: Rwanda empties as millions flee advancing Tutsi forces

ALONG the road that runs through the centre of Ruhengeri is the Ruhengeri Court of Appeal. Across the front of the squat yellow building is written in big letters: 'Justice is carried out in the name of the people'.

It is a strange message in a country where an estimated 500,000 have been hacked to pieces by hate-indoctrinated mobs of machete-wielding Hutu extremists. Perhaps the only thing emptier than those words is Ruhengeri itself.

Last week Ruhengeri was crawling with residents, displaced people from elsewhere and thousands of Hutus in the government army. But on Wednesday the town fell to the forces of the mainly Tutsi Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF). The capture of the main bastion in the heartland of the most extreme of Hutu extremists tolled the death-knell of Rwanda's 'interim government'.

Last night the RPF said it had reached Gisenyi, and made a radio appeal to government troops to surrender. Ministers who had been holed up there had already fled the few miles east towards Zaire or south for Cyangugu, on the edge of a French-declared safe zone.

They did not flee alone. Hundreds of thousands - perhaps a million - of ordinary Rwandans, mostly Hutu peasants, left as well. Fed on a steady diet of hateful propaganda that portrayed the RPF as animals, Hutus packed their few belongings in bundles, put them on top of their heads and left in a human tidal wave. By yesterday, more than half a million people had crossed into the eastern Zaire border town of Goma, tripling the local population and overwhelming international relief agencies.

The result is that the RPF advance on Ruhengeri has created what threatens to be a humanitarian catastrophe on an unprecedented scale. And the rebels only succeeded in winning another empty city.

The RPF may now control more than two-thirds of Rwanda, but that territory consists of hundreds of Ruhengeris: deserted villages and towns where only about 500,000 people of Rwanda's 7.7 million pre-war population still live. The rest are dead or in refugee camps in Tanzania, Burundi, Uganda and Zaire.

The emptiness of the RPF areas is almost deafening. Fields full of crops wave in the breeze. There is nobody to harvest them. Cattle wander the landscape unattended. In less than three months, most of Africa's most densely populated country has become an empty, windswept land of rolling hills and fierce volcanoes.

Yesterday, the only things moving on the streets of Ruhengeri were truckloads of RPF soldiers and a trickle of Hutus who decided to flow against the tide leaving the country and take the risk of going home. The RPF is welcoming them with open arms, knowing that the real challenge is how to turn that trickle into a steady stream.

Sitting on a verandah of the eerily empty Hotel Muharbura, just around the corner from the turn-off for Rwanda's Volcano national park, Seth Sendashonga, the RPF's choice for minister of youth and social work in a new broad-based government led by the rebels, discussed how the RPF would try to bring the people back.

'This is a problem of long re-education,' he said. 'The population here has been the victim of a long propaganda campaign, and that has had an effect that we don't want to minimise. Solving this problem will be a long process, involving reassuring people, having them see us behaving correctly, having them see us not victimising them as they feared.'

At the core of the problem is whether the Hutus, many of whom participated in one way or another in the massacres of their Tutsi neighbours, will accept rule by a new government, that they would see as being under control of the Tutsi minority, which they fear wants to recreate its centuries-old domination of the Hutus.

'Hutus in this country, and more important, Hutus outside, will never accept rule by a Tutsi-controlled government,' one UN official said.

Still, there is room for hope. At the Ruhengeri stadium, which consists of an athletic track and a football pitch overlooked by a small concrete stand, 500 Hutus from Ruhengeri and surrounding villages have returned home, seeking RPF protection.

'The only reason my family and I fled was because the mayor told us the RPF was coming and that they would kill us,' said Joseph Ayenkamilye. 'But,' he added, pointing to the RPF soldiers guarding the site, 'since we came back, they have done nothing to us. We decided it was worth the risk of coming back here rather than taking the risk of starving on the other side.'