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As French Depart, More Rwandans Head for Zaire

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On this day, there are only 20,000 to 30,000 of them on the road out of southwestern Rwanda: children carrying babies on their backs, old women trembling on weak knees, mothers carrying reed mats for sleeping--and perhaps dying--on.

All have the same wide-open, fearful stare.

For 100 mountainous miles to the east and 75 miles to the north, long columns of refugees are traveling the two roads out of the U.N.-protected “safe zone” in Rwanda and toward the remote Zairian border town of Bukavu.

There is no haste. This is not--at least not yet--a repeat of the fear that sent 1 million Rwandans fleeing into Goma, Zaire, last month in front of advancing troops. But only in Rwanda, in the summer of 1994, could a river of 20,000 to 30,000 displaced people be regarded as an ordinary event, not yet a crisis.

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The French marines and soldiers who have shielded them since late June relinquished command of much of the region Wednesday to U.N. troops from the West African nation of Ghana. But 200 French remain on the ground until their pullout deadline Monday, and the refugees feel no prod of panic.

There are more than 1 million other Rwandans huddled in this part of the country. And relief workers here save the word crisis to describe what would happen if even half those refugees took to the roads in the coming 100 or so hours.

“If it stays at 20,000 to 30,000, we can handle them. But add a zero and we’re going to be in a mess,” said an aid worker with the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Particularly worrisome are the two bridges that cross the Rusizi River into Zaire. Single-lane and wooden, the crossings are perfect choke points for mass calamity if a large number of refugees should arrive simultaneously and somehow be stampeded.

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On Wednesday, the sea of people on both sides of the border stretched for miles. About 200,000 to 300,000 Rwandans have gathered near here already.

Many are walking right up to the Zairian border, then setting up camp, ready to flee or prepared to stay, all depending on their best last-minute hunch for survival. Are the odds better in a squalid Zairian refugee camp? Or in facing their old enemies in the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which now controls all of the country except this safe zone?

“I’m afraid. The RPF is tying up people by the arms and burning them,” said Isaac Bakundukize, who was resting on the long march through the mountain forest of this national park. “My family? Some are here, and some have parted.”

In interviews with Westerners, it is almost always the young, forceful men who speak out most strongly in favor of fleeing the country. One cannot help but wonder at each stop: Which of these men is running because of guilt? Who of them are Hutus who joined in the massacre of perhaps 500,000 rival Tutsis before the Tutsi-led rebel army took over the country last month?

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The roads out of Rwanda are full of murderers.

There are “those that are fleeing and those who have reason to flee,” said French Marine Col. Erik de Stabenrath. On Wednesday, he relinquished command of the French garrison in the center of this zone to Ghanaian troops.

In the past few days, the French and the United Nations, in cooperation with the new Tutsi-dominated government, have pleaded with Rwandans to trust the United Nations and not flee.

De Stabenrath said the campaign has been successful.

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“The situation is absolutely calm, showing the confidence the people have in the Ghanaian army,” he said at change-of-command ceremonies.

Indeed, many refugees in the better-organized camps held fast Wednesday as a result of the lobbying. But thousands of others who came from areas where the leadership is weak, or already on the run, told a different story.

From the hub townships of Gikongoro and Kibuye, unbroken, moving chains of refugees--sometimes as dense as 1,000 people a mile--plodded under drenching rain. Only a few refugees own umbrellas or plastic garbage bags. The rest suffered silently under the sullen sky and in the gooey red mud.

Long-horned cattle moaned and clattered along in the columns with the refugees and throngs of goats and occasional dogs.

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Balanced on heads and gripped awkwardly in callused hands are the only things these people can carry from their past into their future: soggy bedrolls, pans, gasoline cans, baskets, gourds, machetes, an ancient sewing machine, a 10-pound sack of relief food.

Most of them walk, and most of them on bare feet, slapping quietly over the winding mountain roads.

And every time they are asked why, they crush around with pleading faces and ask back: “We’re afraid, we don’t know--what can you tell us?”


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