The first exhausted refugees from camps in warring southeast Zaire limped into their homeland on Sunday, after walking more than 100 miles on roads lined with the corpses of fellow refugees who died along the way.
Hobbling on swollen feet, they reached the border town of Gisenyi and said many others were behind them, ill, hungry and in danger from rebel attacks.
“These are the healthy ones,” said U.N. World Food Program spokesman Trevor Rowe, who was at the border crossing. “Who knows in what condition stragglers are going to be?”
While more than a half-million Rwandans have returned in the past week from forests north of Lake Kivu on the Zaire-Rwanda border, these 100 were the first to make it on the long walk from the refugee camps.
U.S. reconnaissance flights show there are another 175,000 people on the move northward toward Gisenyi. In all, U.N. agencies are still expecting “a potentially large number of refugees, possibly up to half a million,” Rowe said.
Nigonza Nionsaba reached the border Sunday, traveling with her 5-year-old son and with a 9-month-old baby strapped to her back. She had set out a month ago from Uvira, Zaire, more than 125 miles to the south, and lost contact with her husband somewhere along the way.
“In one kilometer, I saw seven to 10 bodies,” she said. “Many who died fell on the sides of the road.”
Fighting between Zairian rebels and Zairian troops allied with Rwandan Hutu militia sent the refugees heading back into Rwanda this month, 2-1/2 years after they fled into eastern Zaire to escape retaliation for Rwanda’s bloody civil war.
Zairian rebels claim almost all the Rwandan refugees have now returned home, and say the Rwandans who remain are the militia members who carried out the 1994 genocide of a half-million Rwandan Tutsis. Refugees say the rebels are attacking them as they try to make it back home, kidnapping the fighting-age men among them.
Aid agencies insist hundreds of thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees remain in Zaire, and are urging international leaders to stick to plans for a military force to help them return home safely.
In Germany, delegates from more than 25 nations discussed the options for a military force Sunday. The plans they took home to their governments ranged from aid airlifts to the riskier deployment of security forces to safeguard aid workers and refugees, said Canadian Lt. Gen. Maurice Baril, who led the talks.
Although Rwanda says the return of the refugees has made any military effort unnecessary, Rwandan leaders are willing to let soldiers cross through their territory, Baril said.
Baril said participating governments need to know more about the numbers and circumstances of the refugees still in Zaire before they decide on a military force. Delegates agreed there could still be as many as 550,000 refugees, he said.
Rebel leaders have refused to let aid workers and journalists enter the areas in eastern Zaire where returning refugees say their compatriots are in the most danger.
Refugees continue to come out of the forests north of Lake Kivu, where they took refuge when fighting started in eastern Zaire.
On Saturday, about 4,000 refugees from the north came out of Virunga National Park and reached the border town of Goma, where doctors report a sharp rise in cases of cholera. Three people have died of it at Goma’s Virunga hospital in the past week, doctors said.
In Zaire, rebel leader Laurent Desire Kabila named Cubaka Anatole Bishikwabo governor of the rebelheld Bukavu area on Friday, consolidating the rebels’ claim to a 185-mile slice of territory in eastern Zaire.
Map: Refugee flow