Sick, starving and facing certain death if they remained in their gruesome surroundings, scores of refugees Saturday left the camp where they holed up a week ago in defiance of government orders.
About 100 people, including a woman with a 2-day-old baby, trudged across the corpses, garbage and human waste virtually carpeting the compound to begin the trek back to villages they fled after last year’s civil war.
Hundreds remained inside the Kibeho compound, but many stuffed belongings into sacks, their resistance diminished by hunger and illness. On Thursday and Friday, 27 people left.
Most people inside the courtyard and surrounding brick buildings are Hutus, the ethnic majority blamed for last year’s genocide that killed about 500,000 people, most of them from the Tutsi minority. Hutus fled to camps like Kibeho as Tutsi-led rebels seized control of the government.
The army began closing the camps two weeks ago, saying they were harboring Hutu militants. But many refugees refused to leave, afraid they would be attacked by Tutsis if they returned home. The government cut off food and water to the Kibeho refugees and have refused to let aid workers treat them in hopes of forcing them out.
The result has been horrific. People, some dead or dying, lie atop piles of filth. The smell of death and excrement mingles with that of smoke from fires on which dried beans smolder in rusted pots. Dirty mattresses and blankets lie atop corpses. Aid agencies warn of cholera.
Yazefu Nzayisenga, 68, said he had been in Kibeho for 17 days and was too afraid to leave. But others gave up, as the government had predicted they would.
“They have a choice: they can either come out now or they can starve themselves out,” Interior Minister Seth Sendashonjwa said Thursday. “I think when hunger bites, they will make the right choice.”
A mission Thursday by top government officials, including Sendashonjwa, did not succeed in ending the standoff in Kibeho. Sendashonjwa returned Saturday and shouted through a bullhorn for those inside to come out.
About a dozen obeyed immediately, including the family with the newborn infant, and more followed throughout the day.
An elderly woman in the first group, clearly dehydrated, sat on the ground outside the compound while U.N. peacekeepers manning a nearby medical unit brought her water. Peacekeeping troops just feet from the compound have been denied entry by Rwandan troops.
An estimated 2,000 people were shot or trampled to death at Kibeho last weekend when Rwandan troops trying to close the camp opened fire on refugees. Rwandan troops unearthed mass graves on Thursday in an attempt to prove the government claim that only 338 people died.
Witnesses to the killings allege thousands more bodies are buried in the hills.