Balancing mattresses, suitcases, water bottles and sacks of food on their heads, 50,000 refugees tried to flee Burundi on Friday before being forced to halt when Tanzania closed the border.
Most of the refugees - who arrived from neighboring Rwanda only last year - were expected to spend the night along the road while waiting to see if the border reopens today.
U.N. officials suggested the Burundi government and its Tutsi-dominated army was partly to blame for their panicked flight.
The Rwandan Hutus sought refuge in Burundi last summer, fearful of reprisals following massacres of up to 500,000 people, mostly Tutsis, during a civil war in their homeland.
This week they began fleeing Burundi, fearing they would be killed in its increasing ethnic violence.
Rwanda and Burundi have roughly the same ethnic mix: about 85 percent Hutu and 15 percent Tutsi. The groups have been fighting each other for political supremacy since their countries won independence from Belgium in 1962. Hundreds of thousands have been killed over the years.
The latest mass exodus was prompted by an attack Monday by armed men in one of seven Rwandan refugee camps near the north-central Burundi town of Ngozi. Twelve Rwandan refugees were killed and 22 wounded by unknown attackers at the Majuri camp.
“It’s my second time as a refugee,” said a 26-year-old former Rwandan school teacher who would identify herself only as Marianne. “I don’t know where I come from anymore.”
She was one of thousands, loaded down with possessions, forming a steady column for miles along the main road leading to Tanzania. One small boy lay exhausted by the side of the road.
The former refugee camp of Magara was deserted. Refugees had even stripped the roofs off their flimsy stick huts, leaving behind rows upon rows of barren, deserted dwellings.
About 1,500 refugees crossed at Kobero, Tanzania, on Thursday and 1,700 on Friday before the government shut the crossing. It was not known how long the border closure would last.
Most of those remaining on the road stopped near Gashoho - a town halfway along the 50-mile route to Tanzania - where U.N. workers tried to try to persuade them to turn back, said Peter Kessler, U.N. refugee agency spokesman.
“Our people are talking to them, giving them water, calling for calm and asking them to return,” he said. “Already, some hundreds have turned back,” while many would probably spend the night at Gashoho.
Refugees, meanwhile, were unsure of their next step.
“The Tanzanian border has been closed and we have to decide what to do,” said Eric Kompanyi.