Associated Press

June 22, 1997

Rwandan Hutus Seek Refuge in Congo

LOUKOLELA, Republic of Congo (AP) -- Rwandan refugees stepped from a tightly packed canoe that carried them across the Congo River at the end of an eight-month trek to find a safe haven.

But it was far from a secure refuge. They found themselves yet again in a country racked by fighting and isolated from aid agencies seeking to help them.

The refugees, most of them fit, young men, had walked thousands of miles across the former Zaire through some of the world's densest tropical forests to escape Rwandan-backed rebels who have taken it over.

They'd given up their arms as a price for entering the Republic of the Congo, which has been torn by fighting since early June.

Today, most are resisting U.N. offers to return them to Rwanda. Despite the turmoil, they said they feel safe here.

``First, the Tutsi soldiers chased us out of Rwanda, then they chased us out of Congo. Why fly back into their trap? They'd kill us back in Rwanda,'' said Francois Kabayiza.

The 23-year-old is among more than 1.1 million Rwandan Hutus the U.N. refugee agency says fled to the former Zaire three years ago. They feared retribution for a genocidal campaign that Hutu militants waged over a three-month period in 1994, killing at least 500,000 minority Tutsis.

The refugees spent 2 1/2 years in U.N. camps just across Rwanda's western border in eastern Zaire. They ran when rebels attacked the camps to dislodge former Hutu soldiers and militia who were using them as bases from which to attack Rwanda.

Thousands walked for weeks through equatorial jungle so thick they had to hack out paths and through swamps infested by malaria-bearing mosquitoes. To survive hunger and disease, they stole from local farmers, looted hospitals and ate roots, tree bark and grubs.

With precision that befits his military training, Sebastian Uwimabari, 30, kept a record of his odyssey in a palm-sized notebook. By his calculations, a circuitous route took him 2,500 miles from the Rwandan capital, Kigali, to the Republic of Congo.

``The same enemy that has chased us from Rwanda was chasing us through Zaire,'' said the one-time military policeman in the defeated Rwandan Armed Forces, or FAR.

Although he said he is innocent of genocide, he won't go back even if the United Nations offers him a nonstop flight to Kigali. Uwimabari is afraid that as a defeated soldier he will be killed or thrown into prison to face genocide charges. More than 100,000 Hutus already are in filthy, overcrowded prisons in Rwanda.

``I'm ex-FAR,'' Uwimabari said. ``To the Tutsis, that makes me guilty.''

About 20,000 Rwandans have crossed the broad, languid Congo River to the Republic of Congo. About 80 percent are young men who might have been among the killers, though none admit to wrongdoing.

Loukolela, 250 miles northeast of the capital Brazzaville, has 6,250 refugees, which represents the single largest concentration in the country. Nine have walked as far as Pointe-Noire on the Atlantic Ocean, another 450 miles away.

``For the civilians, there is a sense of relief at crossing the river,'' said Paul Stromberg, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. ``These are the same people who have been in the jungle, fed rumors, been attacked, and who have been driven by the ex-FAR to keep moving.''

The United Nations has a strict policy of voluntary repatriations. The Hutus' refusal to go home presents a dilemma: The refugees are in yet a third country at war, which makes it difficult -- logistically and politically -- for U.N. refugee officials to help them, Stromberg said.

New refugees are required to spend a night on Sankala Island, a swatch of forested land in the middle of a 2-mile-wide river where their new hosts confiscate their AK-47s, bullets and uniforms. The materiel is swiftly moved out of the area.

Refugees are ferried to the mainland in a motorized canoe, and then herded up the riverbank with steps chiseled into the dirt to the shade of a thatched canopy. There, their bundles are searched. Machetes -- wood-handled knives used in agriculture throughout Africa and the weapon of choice in the 1994 Rwandan slaughter -- are confiscated.

Nearly 400 refugees have said they are former members of the defeated Rwandan army or Interahamwe militia.

``The farther the refugees run, the more young men we see,'' Stromberg said.

But still, some women and children have survived the ordeal. A baby tugs at his mother's shriveled breast in the shade of a special feeding center for the weakest. Families wash in the river, or share a bowl of red beans cooked over wispy fires in the makeshift camp. A few work among the mounds of planted manioc (cassava) in exchange for food. Others fish.

The refugees outnumber the local population of 1,700. The UNHCR and World Food Program fly in about 4 tons of food a day to Loukolela to keep them fed.

``We need to keep getting food in,'' said Pierre Lessouongo, a Congolese who is in charge of registering refugees. ``Otherwise, they will want to steal our manioc.''

The tiny village, a collection of mud huts at the lush green fringe of the river, has its own problems.

The vice governor, who was appointed by President Lissouba, fled to Brazzaville last week. The villagers support Lissouba's rival, former military leader Gen. Denis Sassou-Nguesso.

Fighting broke out in Brazzaville June 5, when Lissouba tried to disarm Sassou-Nguesso's militia, saying he wanted to avert any disruption of presidential elections scheduled for July 27. Sassou-Nguesso claimed the president was trying to cling to power.