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Confronted by Tanzanian soldiers, Rwandan refugees return to camps

December 13, 1996

BENACO, Tanzania (AP) _ Hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees trudged wearily back to their camps Friday, frightened by Tanzanian soldiers into ending their daylong flight toward the interior of the country.

``The soldiers stopped us,″ said Francois Lukera, balancing a bundle of clothes on his head. ``We didn’t want to come back, but they scared us.″

Aid workers said 410,000 refugees _ who on Thursday suddenly fled deeper into Tanzania from camps on the Rwandan border where they had been living for two years _ reversed their direction at midday Friday.

``It was just like they turned on a dime,″ said Chris Sykes, team leader for CARE International in northwest Tanzania.

Dozens of refugees in a column churned slowly toward Benaco camp, the area’s largest, with about 160,000 refugees. They made it clear they would not return to Rwanda. ``I’m going to Benaco,″ ``Benaco camp,″ ``Benaco,″ they said when asked their destinations. The camp is about 15 miles southwest of the Rwandan border.

``We can’t go back (to Rwanda) because there are problems there. We might be killed,″ Lukera said. Rumors were rife among the refugees that the Tanzanians would force them to return to Rwanda within 24 hours.

Tanzania wanted the refugees to continue past the camps and on to Rwanda, but the troops attempts to stop them from resettling in their camps were futile.

By nightfall Friday, tens of thousands were back in their huts, lighting smoky fires to cook dinner.

Tanzania has about 535,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees _ more than any other central African country _ and the Tanzanian government has given them until the end of the month to leave.

On Thursday, almost all of the refugees fled four giant camps and moved east toward a densely forested Tanzanian game reserve, away from the Rwandan border.

Aid officials said the refugees were being herded by armed Hutu militants, who fear retribution for the 1994 slaughter of 500,000 minority Tutsis in Rwanda if they go home. The militants, who have controlled the refugee camps through intimidation, apparently did not want the refugees to meet the Tanzanian government deadline.

More than a million Hutus fled Rwanda in 1994, scattering into nations that surround the tiny country _ including Zaire, to the west, and Tanzania, to the east.

Another 640,000 Rwandan refugees returned home from Zaire last month when attacks by Zairian rebels freed them from the control of Hutu militants.

CARE International spokesman Mark Richardson said the refugees in Tanzania repeat horror stories they’ve been told by Hutu intimidators to prevent them from going home: ``Babies will be taken from their mothers, Hutus will be thrown into the river, their hands and feet will be cut off.″

Richardson said the main figures behind the 1994 massacres were believed to still be hiding in the folds of green hills of the Bigiri Game Reserve, while ``those who have nothing to fear have come back.″

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees told U.N. officials early Friday that about 1,500 of the Rwandan refugees had returned home, said U.N. spokeswoman Sylvana Foa.

Later in the day, the UNHCR said other refugees also had continued past the four camps and were headed for the Rwandan border.

About 10,000 soldiers patrolled northwest Tanzania. On the main road back to Benaco they watched silently as the untidy parade passed. Children clung to their mothers’ skirts, men pushed overloaded bicycles, young girls walked with siblings strapped to their backs.

In Geneva, U.N. refugee officials said they urged the Tanzanian government early on to separate Hutu militants from the refugees they had been intimidating. Augustin Mahiga, coordinator for Rwanda for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said the Tanzanians have a list of up to 800 Hutu militiamen.

He conceded that the Hutu militias have outmaneuvered UNHCR in its attempts to persuade the refugees to go home.

``At the beginning it was brute force, literally hacking those who wanted to return, cutting their tendons and even killing them,″ he said.

Representatives of international aid agencies met Friday in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, to discuss the needs of the returning refugees.

The gathering was a follow-up to a similar meeting last month in Geneva, when 20 nations agreed to provide Rwanda with aid to repatriate refugees. The Rwandan government has estimated that it needs $711 million in emergency aid to rebuild the country and rehabilitate the refugees.

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