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Return to Rwanda Filled With Unknowns : Africa: The powerful and the poor overcome their fears and begin to trickle home. What they find is a ravaged land.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

From politician to peasant, a trickle of Rwandans have defied their old government, withstood shrill warnings of retaliation and returned home to their looted, blood-soaked country. And from what can be seen on this side of the border, away from the refugee camps in Zaire, they are glad to be here.

“The fear has passed,” said Laurent Ngwijabanzi, 45, a bean and banana farmer. He lives with his wife, Constantine Nyiramahne, 42, in a steep hillside village with two of their children. Five other offspring remain refugees in Zaire, 15 miles away.

Down a precipitous footpath, out a winding dirt road, then north along the main highway, a different kind of refugee also has returned home: Banzi Weralsi, 67, the former ruling party strongman in this prefecture, a man who once controlled the much-feared Interhamwe militia. The Interhamwe are the young men who are blamed for much of the genocide that occurred this spring and summer in Rwanda.

Weralsi now sits in a Naugahyde chair in a plain cement-block home, with soldiers of his old enemy--troops who surely lost family in the killing--casually staffing a checkpoint 100 yards away.

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“The only assurance I have that they will not kill me is that I’m not guilty. My heart has not charged me with murder,” Weralsi said.

Stories like these two--those of the strongman and the struggling man--may not be representative of all that is happening in this shattered country.

Its politics are murky and violent. Vengeance is as old as Africa. People here also are posturing for survival under the eyes of the newly victorious Rwandan Patriotic Front, which drove the old government from this country. With the old government came one of the most tragic refugee stampedes in history.

But from what a visitor can see, Rwanda on this Monday is only a day’s walk from refugee hell.

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By now, Americans are familiar with the story of this far-off tragedy: The former government was run mostly by Hutus. The new government is represented mostly by Tutsis. The bitter blood between these peoples has raged for generations. It boiled over in April when Hutus and their militias rampaged and, international aid agencies estimate, killed perhaps 500,000 Tutsis, maybe more.

Gisenyi, like most Rwandan towns, experienced its share of the genocide. Before that, in 1991 and 1992, Tutsis were slaughtered here by the score.

“Everyone knows what happens to the Tutsi. I cannot repeat it. . . . People were being killed like cutting bananas with a machete,” farmer Ngwijabanzi said.

Six days ago, from the despair and disease of the refugee camps, he returned to Rwanda. Up the loose footpath, his home is made of earthen blocks with a cement floor, three bare rooms, peeling yellow walls and a framed photograph of his family and himself on display. In the picture, he wears a tie and suit jacket. “I was a young man then, and handsome, and those were good days.”

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Why were they good? “Because there was no war in the country.”

Today, Ngwijabanzi’s clothes are ragged and deeply soiled. His teeth are bad. He routed his family from Rwanda in the dark of night when Hutu officials drove the roads and told everyone, “Get out quickly from this country. The RPF will kill you, surely!”

Of his three weeks as a refugee, Ngwijabanzi observes: “The worst period of my life was in Zaire. I saw what I had never seen before. The streets were full of bodies.”

Today, officials of the Hutu-led government-in-exile and their Interhamwe militia hooligans enforce a brutal discipline on those suffering 900,000 or so refugees who have refused to go home and remain huddled across the border in Zaire.

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Their message is the same as what brought the refugees here: Don’t go home; you will be killed.

Fewer than one in 10 refugees has taken the risk and returned. On Monday, there were decidedly different accounts of just how many refugees are leaving the camps. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said the number was increasing. But U.N. troops monitoring the border said the number was only about 1,400 a day and decreasing.

Driving the roads of the region, there were surprisingly few returnees to be seen, perhaps only 100 or so in nine hours.

“There were many rumors we would be killed,” Ngwijabanzi explained. “I decided to come and see if it was true. I cannot lie--when we crossed the border we were afraid. We thought we might die.”

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But one day home in Rwanda turned into two; it’s now been almost a week. Ngwijabanzi said the Tutsi soldiers of the new government aren’t seeking revenge, but “treat us gently; we are no longer afraid. . . . Apart from a lack of food, there is no problem here at all. . . . There have been no disturbances at all, I swear to it.”

By his account, the new government inflicts less terror than his fellow Hutus did when they governed. Then, he recalled, “Everybody was frightened. People were not just killed because they were Tutsi.” He told of neighbors informing on neighbors, arbitrary violence at every turn. Once, 20 soldiers stormed his house because he had a visitor and someone reported it as suspicious.

But Ngwijabanzi’s peace of mind is not complete because his stomach will soon be empty. The mass of Hutu refugees who swarmed through this border region looted almost everything on their way to Zaire. Ngwijabanzi said he had just finished harvesting 225 pounds of beans. They were stolen. His banana grove was stripped bare. His five goats were stolen by Zairian soldiers at the border. His water supply has gone bad. Now he has money for only two days. And not a single seed to plant for the new bean crop.

“That’s why my other children stayed in the camps,” he said. “At least there, they can get food. When there is food here, I will go back and get them.”

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Although primitive, Ngwijabanzi’s home is beautifully situated. It has the feel of a mountain cabin, with a grand vista of 100 acres of banana groves. Beyond are steep hills, terraced for beans; farther still are the high green mountains of interior Rwanda. Other homes are clustered on this slope. But only three families from the entire village have returned.

“In time . . . they will come,” he said.

If Ngwijabanzi’s story is simple, politician Weralsi’s is infinitely impenetrable. He was the sworn enemy of the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front. His militia is accused of brutality against the Tutsis--violence considered among history’s most savage. He ran the government’s MRND political party in this part of the nation from 1992 until he fled with the other refugees in advance of the Tutsi army.

But here he is, under Tutsi protection, with his Rolex watch and his friend, Augistine Bizimungu, a former mayor and another leading Hutu from the defeated regime. They sit in the living room of one of Weralsi’s three homes.

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The former mayor is a doctor. With all the medical calamity around him, he sits in his pressed suit and complains that he has not had his tea.

A Tutsi army officer directs visitors to the house, then drives away. This means the interview is unsupervised, the interpreter independent; no soldiers are within sight.

By simple logic, these two men would be among the last to return to face the new regime. How could their hands be bloodless when even they acknowledge butchery occurred here?

“I tried to stop the killing (of Tutsis),” insists Weralsi. “But those who wouldn’t stop were bandits, outside the law.” He said his control of the militia slipped away in 1993. And he willingly names the man who supposedly took charge of the armed youth wing during its rampage--he identifies him as Bernard Munyagishahi. “They are wicked people,” he said.

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Maybe Weralsi can be understood as nothing more than a simple survivor, willing to change allegiance swiftly in turbulent Africa. After all, he has been involved in Rwandan politics since 1959; that, itself, surely requires nimble instincts.

“I have to recognize that the power has changed,” he said. “This is not the first time the power has changed. The first thing I have to do is accept that power and do what they say. Surely it will change another time.”

So will he testify at an international inquiry into the Tutsi genocide? “Of course. . . . No doubt, I know exactly who was entirely involved in the massacres. But also many things were done alone in the night.”

And what of his old henchmen, the militia? Who could know better than he if they are apt to hunt him down someday as a traitor? “They certainly are a danger.”

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