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Rwandan Refugees Endure Resistance on Road Home

By John Balzar
Los Angeles Times
GOMA, Zaire

At dawn, families by the hundreds rolled up their bed mats, folded their plastic tents, scraped the last of the morning corn-meal from their pots and moved to the road. Word spread among ever growing numbers of Rwandan refugees: It was time to go home, finally.

Then, on the roadside, they sat. All Thursday long. It was a brilliant day with sunshine and soft African breezes. But none of the refugees moved farther.

To their surprise - and most everyone else's - no soldiers came to march them onto the trucks. There were no trucks. No United Nations officials were there to invite them onto buses. There were no buses.

Once again, Rwanda's refugees found themselves pawns in the tortured politics of central Africa. The issue was not whether they should go home. The U.N. has been trying to coax them back to Rwanda for months. The world community has said it can no longer pay $700 million a year to feed and care for them. The government of Rwanda has been urging them home. And Zaire, weary of accommodating more than 1 million refugees for 14 months now, mobilized its army this week to begin forcing some 15,000 of them across the border.

As a result of Zaire's get-tough action, it seemed there was a breakthrough in the long and dangerous refugee deadlock in this region. But the momentum was interrupted as the U.N., the government of Zaire and diplomats argued Thursday over not the repatriation but its terms.

The U.N. held out for principle. Refugees should not be expelled at gunpoint. Zaire - a vast, lawless country with well-deserved self-consciousness about its international image, relented and withdrew its troops, agreeing to discuss the matter.

By the day's end, an agreement seemed to be in the offing. Zaire would hold its soldiers back, the U.N. would take over. Instead of forced expulsion, the refugees would be allowed to go home voluntarily.

Still, on Thursday, the refugees sat along the road, bewildered.

Some relief workers threw up their hands. A golden moment had arrived. The powerful group-think that governs so much of refugee life appeared to be shifting.

Last week, the same as for the last year, the vast mass of refugees held a single unifying belief. They could not go home. They are Hutus. Among them are powerful, ruthless extremists guilty of the 1994 mass murders of rival Tutsi. The murderers could not go home because Tutsi now control Rwanda and demand justice. And the extremists decreed that no one else could go, either. The refugees were their shield and their claim to legitimacy as a government in exile.

But Zairian soldiers, with a fearsome reputation, moved into the camps this week to begin expulsions. This scared off the extremists. Suddenly, the innocent felt free to reconsider their future. A few hundred volunteered on Wednesday to be "forced" home. Three times that number began to move to the road on Thursday.

"People who are poor and innocent want to go home. The U.N. has to act swiftly, to act now, to get them moving and keep the momentum," complained Samantha Bolton of Doctors Without Borders, the non-governmental international relief group.

She and other relief officials worried that the deadlock over the refugees could resume just as soon as Hutu extremists felt safe in returning to the camps.

Indeed, by Thursday afternoon, with the retreat of the Zairian army, young Hutu men with brawny arms and hard eyes could be seen again roaming the refugee camps of Goma. They surrounded - and surely intimidated - any refugees who dared speak to journalists. By all appearances, these were the very extremists who have long frustrated reconciliation among the Rwandans.

For their part, U.N. officials insisted that Zaire's brief, gun-point expulsions "broke the back" of the extremists who controlled the camps. Now, the U.N. reasoned, the refugees can return home in orderly fashion.

"We now understand there is a considerable desire among the refugees to go back. We've received communications from them to this effect," said Chris Bowers, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "I don't think the refugees are going to change their minds. We don't believe the moment will be lost."