War drives refugees home

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They sit amid a sea of blue UN tarpaulins, feet bloody and bandaged from the five-day cross-border trek that war - not gentle persuasion - finally persuaded them to make.

They are, as yet, extremely rare - among the first Rwandan Hutus to return home from refugee camps set up on Zaire's eastern border two years ago after the Hutu genocide of 800,000 of their fellow Tutsi countrymen.

The path this group of 200 forged through dense forests after Katale, the most northerly camp, was engulfed by fighting between Zairean troops and Rwandan-backed rebels is now strewn with bodies of their relatives and friends. "We did not have time to bury the dead," said Hategekimana Eliel. "There were too many bullets." The Katale refugees brought the first eyewitness accounts of Tahindo and Kibumba, camps north of Goma, cut off from UN aid since the rebels took on the Zairean army. "The camps were deserted when we reached them," said a woman who carried her young son to Rwanda, living on rain water. "There was no food, just dead bodies."

The people of Tahindo and Kibumba have turned southwest with more than 400,000 other refugees to escape the fighting and avoid Rwanda. Another 300,000 are trapped by other fronts. With the Zairean army on the run, the Rwandan-backed rebels' main opposition appears to be Hutu militias who ran the camps and masterminded the 1994 genocide.

"They told us that the Tutsis would murder us if we came back," Mr Eliel said. "But when the fighting reached the camp we had to make a choice." Mr Eliel said he wanted to return to Rwanda almost from the start. "At first our leaders told us the war was still going on. Later we found out what they said was not so."

UN videos aimed at persuading the refugees to return were shown in the camps but Hutu leaders said it was all propaganda. "They did not need guns to stop us leaving," said Mr Eliel. "Most people were scared. I stayed because my in-laws did not want me to take my wife's children to Rwanda but when the fighting started around the camp, there was no need for further discussion."

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees continues to warn that an enormous humanitarian disaster is under way in eastern Zaire. A spokesman, Ray Wilkinson, said that the war offered the international community the opportunity to break the hold of the Hutu camp militias on the refugees and bring them home to "safe corridors" after persuasion that Rwanda is safe.

As they boarded buses yesterday to return to the villages they fled two years ago, the Katale refugees said they were not afraid. But their eyes betrayed them.

Mr Eliel said he had been treated well since his return three days ago, except for two soldiers he met on the journey. "They started kicking me," he said. Then he gave a nervous giggle. "They said I should have come home earlier. I was two years late."

t In Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire, thousands of students denouncing Rwanda and calling for the resignation of the part- Tutsi Prime Minister Kengo wa Dondo took over parliament. They carried the coffins of two students killed in earlier protests.