Worn down by horrors of war, the children of Rwanda's exodus head home to face new perils

No turning back for Red Cross orphans
Click to follow
The Independent Online
John Bosco Gashumba climbed down from the twin-engined United Nations cargo aircraft, its hold crammed with ragged children, and surveyed the scene around him. To the north, the stark volcanic cone of Nyiragongo loomed over Goma. To the east was the dim ridge marking the Rwandan border, and home.

"This trip was useless," he remarked. "We walked 600km and now we are back."

For the 186 children of Kigali's Red Cross orphanage, aged between three and 15 years, the return to Rwanda's frontier last week marked the end of one ordeal, and possibly the beginning of another.

Having stuck with their charges through three years of war, famine and epidemic, footsore from fleeing 380 miles in four months, Mr Gashumba, a headmaster, and his 10 staff must now lead them into a new and potentially hostile Rwanda. But in a region where humanity has become hopelessly devalued, their story of compas- sion and dedication also gives ground for hope.

"A lot of us only survived because we had our monitors with us," one 16-year-old boy told journalists. "They sold their shoes so we could eat."

It is nearly three years since the Rwandan civil war panicked the orphanage staff into adding their children to the hundreds of thousands of Rwandans - among them the Hutu perpetrators of the 1994 anti-Tutsi genocide - fleeing into neighbouring Zaire.

Then, in October of last year, the fighting caught up with them again. As rebels from the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire moved into the town of Bukavu, most of the Rwandan refugees there took to the road again, this time heading north and west into the heart of Zaire.

Fleeing through towns already looted by the bandits of the Zairean Armed Forces (FAZ), the orphans were forced to live off what they could find. There was no help from the ravaged Zairean population or from their fellow countrymen in the former Rwandan Hutu army and extremist Intera-hamwe Hutu militia.

Yet by late February, when they came to a halt at the town of Kindu, the orphanage had lost only eight children to hunger and disease. Journalists and aid workers who reached Kindu after it was taken by rebels remarked that many of the orphans were in better shape than refugee children who remained with their parents.

Felicien Kaite Kayigi, one of the orphanage staff, said his colleagues regarded the children as their own. "We told them that if you have to die of hunger, then we die from hunger as well," he said.

The orphans were among the first trickle of Rwandan re- fugees to be repatriated by air last week, following the rebel capture of the government stronghold of Kisangani. Unable to gain access to the main concentration of approximately 100,000 refugees, still just beyond the rebel lines at Ubundu, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has begun scouring the jungles of eastern Zaire for smaller groups and evacuating the more vulnerable of them.

More extensive repatriations are ruled out by the difficulty of the terrain, which makes vehicle traffic difficult, and - many aid workers say - by the rebels' reluctance to allow large-scale aid operations to impede their ongoing advance.

According to rebel leader, Laurent Kabila, the refugees at Ubundu, trapped against the unfordable Zaire river, include many armed soldiers of the former Rwandan government and armed members of the genocidal Interahamwe militia.

Unable to return to Rwanda for fear of retribution from their country's Tutsi-dominated government - a strong supporter of the rebel movement - these are reported to have herded many ordinary civilians with them. Aid workers in Goma fear that a rebel assault on Ubundu, which Mr Kabila has not ruled out, could result in massacres or panic many refugees into attempting to cross the river.

The chief of the UNHCR's Goma delegation, Craig Sanders, said that the miserable state of the refugees now behind the rebel lines raised fears for the people at Ubundu.

"There is malnutrition taking its toll and coming with that they are being hit by diseases they would normally recover from, like malaria and diarrhoea, even simple foot wounds that will not heal."

Although spared any further horrors of war, the Red Cross children are now returning into a potentially hostile political environment. The authorities in Kigali regard with great suspicion any refugees who failed to return from Zaire until forced to do so by the recent rebel victories.

Aid workers say that last week's mercy flights were refused permission to fly directly to Kigali and instead were ordered to unload the children at Goma, on Zaire's border with Rwanda.

Although the orphanage says that its charges include several children from the Tutsi minority whom it sheltered from the 1994 genocide, a rebel official who travelled with the flight told journalists that all would have to be interrogated after they crossed into Rwanda.

Thousands of children are among the 90,000 suspected "genocidaires" who are still awaiting trail in Rwanda's horrifically overcrowded jails.