With their children at their feet and their belongings on their back, with hope in their hearts and terror in their past, as many as 400,000 half-starved people formed a river of refugees 10 miles long flooding the road Friday to Rwanda.
Freed from the iron-fisted grip of their own tribesmen, the refugees crossed the border at Goma into Rwanda at the rate of 10,000 an hour - nearly 170 a minute.
More than 30,000 had crossed the border into Rwanda by nightfall, the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reported. Some were being bused home Friday night by the UNHCR.
Balancing meager belongings on their heads, carrying babies on their backs, waves of refugees moved slowly and steadily in a 25-mile column from eastern Zaire to Rwanda.
The refugees, however, still faced the dangers of disease and violence. Cholera has appeared in some refugee camps, 30 women and children were massacred Thursday and some refugees feared Tutsi retaliation once they return home.
The tide of refugees took the world by surprise, but it may work to the advantage of an international military force, including 4,000 U.S. soldiers, being set up to save the refugees.
The U.N. Security Council on Friday unanimously approved the Canadian-led multinational force of 10,000 to 12,000 troops to help aid the refugees in central Africa. The force received a four-month mandate.
“Despite the heartening news that up to a third of the Rwandan refugees in Zaire may finally be going home, people will continue to die in eastern Zaire in appalling numbers and their presence there will continue to destabilize the region,” Canadian Ambassador Robert Fowler told the 15-member council in appealing for passage of the resolution.
Although the biggest U.N. camp in Zaire was emptying, an estimated half-million Rwandan refugees further south in Zaire remain cut off from food aid.
As the Mugunga refugees poured back into Rwanda on Friday, President Pasteur Bizimungu was there at the border to greet them.
“This is a historic moment for Rwanda,” Bizimungu told cheering refugees as he stood on a pickup truck. “You are our brothers.”
Bizimungu told The Associated Press that the exodus meant the multinational force was no longer necessary. “The need for military intervention is over,” he said.
Speaking in Washington, President Clinton added: “We have some very good preliminary news that the refugees will be able to go back to Rwanda and it will work out better than we thought.”
Rwanda insisted Friday on an airlift of supplies only to its territory, saying it no longer supported an international mission in Zaire. The U.S. Embassy in Kigali, Rwanda, told the State Department that the Zaire mission should be reconsidered in light of Rwanda’s opposition.
The Rwandan refugee homecoming was orderly and peaceful, in contrast to the desperate crush in Gisenyi 2-1/2 years ago when more than 1 million Hutus fled Rwanda, fearful that the Tutsi army would take revenge on them for the slayings of a half-million Tutsis in Rwanda.
They have been living a precarious existence in U.N. camps. Fearful of returning home, their lives have been controlled by armed Hutu militias.
Hutu militia fired over the refugees’ heads to stop them from leaving the Mugunga camp on Friday, but their sheer numbers overwhelmed the gunmen.
“I’ve had enough. I just want to go home, straight home,” said Joseph Segatare, a frail, 56-year-old refugee.
Hungry and exhausted but generally healthy, the refugees were registered and searched for weapons at the border crossing between the Zairian city of Goma and Giseyni. They were given high-protein biscuits and taken to nearby U.N. transit camps, which filled up quickly.
“They are an unstoppable wave crashing up against the Rwandan border,” said Ray Wilkinson, a U.N. refugee spokesman in Goma. “What two years ago we called the road of death now could be the road of hope.”
Since they swarmed into eastern Zaire in 1994, the refugees and the armed Hutu extremists lurking among them have been a major source of instability.
They have cost the international community $1 million a day in aid to some 40 sprawling camps that the militias have used as bases for border raids against Rwanda.
When the Hutu militias joined the Zairian army in persecuting local Tutsis last month, they provoked an uprising that has driven government troops from a swath of eastern Zaire.
The Mugunga camp had been controlled by Hutu militia, who intimidated the refugees with threats, violence and assertions that they would be killed by the Rwandan government if they returned home. Their hold over the refugees apparently was shattered by a battlefield defeat Thursday by Banyamulenge, rival Tutsi fighters who have long lived in Zaire and bitterly oppose the Zairian government.
The militias retreated west, further into the forests of Zaire’s interior, and tried to force the refugees to follow them - but this time the people voted with their feet.