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Refugees’ Homeward Flow Resumes at Dawn

November 17, 1996

GISENYI, Rwanda (AP) _ Hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees awoke at down Sunday to resume the arduous trek out of eastern Zaire and back into their homeland, leaving behind 2 1/2 years of exile and misery.

There appeared no end to the human tide as an estimated 400,000 refugees still on the Zairian side wearily hauled their ragged bundles along the road home.

By midday Sunday, the United Nations estimated up to 300,000 had streamed into this border town. At least that many remained on the Zairian side and were flocking over the frontier at a rate of more than 200 a minute.

The tide slowed in the late afternoon as weaker refugees arrived, but thousands continued to stream through the open border.

Overwhelmed by the unrelenting flood, aid agencies virtually gave up attempts to distribute food on the Rwandan side of the border, preferring instead to spread supplies around the country to the returnees’ home villages.

The line of men, women and children stretched back 25 miles through green, winding hills from a now-deserted refugee camp in Zaire and over the border into Gisenyi.

Once through the bottleneck at this lakeside border crossing, some of the refugees were fanning out into the hills to head for homes they have not seen since 1994.

The refugees fled Rwanda 2 1/2 years ago, fearing retribution after a Hutu-led government presided over the massacre of a half-million Tutsis.

Hutu militias in the refugee camps in Zaire virtually held the refugees prisoner until Thursday, when an attack by Zairian rebels sent the militias fleeing into the hills and the refugees on the way home.

``They are moving very slowly, but are anxious to get home,″ said Michele Quintaglie, a World Food Program spokeswoman in Nairobi, Kenya. ``We have to move quickly to get food to their homes.″

The refugees’ unexpected return has overtaken an international effort to assemble a military force to distribute aid and create safe corridors to allow them home.

An additional 600,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees remain cut off from aid in hills south of Goma near the the Zairian towns of Bukavu and Uvira. But Rwandan leaders say there is no longer any need for military intervention, calling instead for aid in resettling refugees.

U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry said plans for the international force were still on, but that the United States and its partners in the Canadian-led force will discuss the ramifications of the refugees’ return.

``It will not eliminate the need for humanitarian support, (but) it will substantially change the nature of that need,″ Perry said.

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