Many of the old, the pregnant and the very young died. The sick were left behind, but soon others became ill.
Frantic with fear and exhausted from their flight, some dropped life-saving food and blankets as they ran. Hiding in a rain forest, the refugees were still parched, forced to suck moisture from tree roots.
The first eyewitness accounts of more than 1 million refugees missing in the maelstrom of eastern Zaire's bitter civil war paint a horrific picture of suffering and deprivation, with people dying of hunger, thirst, exhaustion and exposure in remote rain forests.
The reports are crucial because neither the United Nations nor other aid agencies know the whereabouts or condition of the vast majority of refugees who abandoned about 40 squalid camps in eastern Zaire over the last month as an armed rebellion exploded around them.
"This is driving us up the wall," said Ray Wilkinson, a spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "A million people, a medium-sized city, has just disappeared. . . . They've gone across the front lines and into that great Central African abyss."
John Mwiseneza, a 36-year-old teacher, is back from the abyss. He was among about 250 refugees who have straggled into Rwanda over the last two days.
"Many people have died," he said Wednesday. "The old people, the pregnant mothers and small children--these people died."
Mwiseneza spent three days trekking further west into Zaire with about 200,000 other ethnic Hutu refugees who fled the giant Katale camp near Goma, Zaire, after gunfire was heard nearby Oct. 29.
But he turned back east toward the Rwandan border when he found that the only source of drinking water, other than cold pelting rains each afternoon, came from tapping the roots of trees in the dense forest.
"That's the time people began to die," he said emotionally. "Everyone is just looking now to survive."
It took another four days of hardship for Mwiseneza, his wife and four children to reach Rwanda on Tuesday. They were bused to this transit center, which is run by the U.N. refugee office, about 10 miles east of the border town of Gisenyi, Rwanda.
"There were many people sick," said Francoise Mukasekuru, 23, as she nursed an infant in one of the tents where the newly arrived refugees are staying. "It was very cold. And we were very thirsty."
She and her husband had dropped food and blankets along the road after fleeing Katale.
"We were so tired," she said wearily. "It was so hard."
Fleeing Zairian soldiers, who have been routed by a rebel alliance, added to the travails.
"Soldiers of Zaire came and tried to take our things," said Innocent Biganda, 46, who arrived in Rwanda with his wife and eight children.
"The people don't have anything to eat or any water," added Simon Kanyungu, 76, as he waited for processing in the transit center.
Zaire's government announced Wednesday that it will not permit aid groups to distribute food to the refugees inside Zaire, insisting instead that all refugees must return to Rwanda and Burundi, from which they fled over the last two years.
U.N. agencies and aid groups are also determined to eventually repatriate the refugees, but warned that emergency food and medical care must first be provided to alleviate the suffering of the hundreds of thousands of refugees in eastern Zaire.
At the United Nations, the Security Council is considering a proposal by France to deploy an international force to create "humanitarian corridors" inside Zaire that would allow relief teams to drive through rebel-held areas to reach the refugees.
In Washington, the Clinton administration said it was considering the French proposal, which would involve using U.S. military units to provide logistic support.
But top U.S. policymakers first want a cease-fire in the embattled region and guarantees of safety for the aid workers from Zaire and neighboring Rwanda.
U.S. officials also said they will not send in ground troops beyond those needed to protect U.S. air crews and provide technical help for such functions as ensuring clean water.
Further complicating the proposals to aid refugees, Zaire's ailing President Mobutu Sese Seko--who has been in Europe since August receiving treatment for prostate cancer--met with a U.N. envoy in Nice, France, on Wednesday and backed the use of a multinational force to help the refugees; the rebels in eastern Zaire said they would only accept a force made up of African troops.
Even if aid reaches the refugees, the broader question remains: how to finally persuade more than 1 million people who have stubbornly refused to return home for more than two years that they must do so now.
Under its mandate, the U.N. refugee office cannot force people to return unless they agree to do so.
Most of the ethnic Hutu refugees fled Rwanda in mid-1994 after their leaders and Hutu militias organized and carried out savage massacres of more than 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and their Hutu sympathizers.
Ever since, the Hutu leaders have warned that anyone who returned home would be killed in revenge by the current Tutsi-led regime.
"They told me people are killing in Rwanda," said Werady Nzazabera, 16, after collecting his U.N. ration of blue plastic sheeting, a plastic pail full of corn and a box containing a blanket, salt and beans at the transit center. "They said I would be killed."
He said conditions in the forest were so severe that jerrycans of water were being sold at outrageous prices.
Despite their trek, those in the transit camp appeared healthy, and some seemed stunned to discover that they were welcomed by Rwandan soldiers.
"I'm happy to be home," Nzazabera said.
The Rwandan government interviews each returning refugee in case they are wanted for taking part in the 1994 genocide.
It was not clear if any of the new arrivals had been arrested and sent to join more than 80,000 Hutus languishing in Rwanda's desperately overcrowded prisons. None has yet gone to trial.
But human rights officials say those refugees who have returned to their rural communes over the last two years have not been killed or otherwise attacked at a higher rate than other Rwandans.
Times staff writer Art Pine in Washington contributed to this report.