Associated Press

May 23, 1997

Rwanda Refugees Fly Home From Congo

MBANDAKA, Congo (AP) -- Not everyone left for home when the United Nations began its first airlift of Rwandan Hutu refugees from this Congo River port.

A small child died in her mother's arms -- most likely of malnutrition or malaria -- while waiting for the flight.

A Red Cross worker carried the small body away. The mother, shaken but determined, boarded the huge aircraft with her two other children for the five-hour trip back to Rwanda from northwestern Congo.

After walking halfway across Africa, 300 Rwandan Hutu refugees were on the flight home Thursday, leaving behind at least 25,000 others hiding from hostile soldiers in the deep forest along the Congo River.

The 300 -- most of them men of military age -- returned to Rwanda, 750 miles to the east, on the first flight organized by the U.N. refugee agency.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said up to 25,000 more refugees had been spotted in the forest in and around Mbandaka, still hiding in fear of being caught by former rebels loyal to self-proclaimed President Laurent Kabila, who has taken control of Congo after an eight-month rebellion.

The refugees had fled Rwanda in 1994, fearing retribution for the Hutu slaughter of at least half a million minority Tutsis.

Dressed in rags, their bare feet swollen after their march west from the Rwandan border, the refugees are from a group of about 300,000 Rwandans still in Congo, formerly known as Zaire.

About 1.1 million Rwandan Hutus fled to Zaire in 1994. About 750,000 returned home last fall and winter after rebels of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo attacked their camps along the Rwandan border, hoping to flush out former Rwandan Hutu soldiers and militia.

Others fled deeper into Africa's third-largest country, often herded ahead by the ex-soldiers and militia.

The U.N. airlift, which since April 27 has returned 34,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees home from the eastern city of Kisangani is increasingly overshadowed by consistent but unconfirmed reports that Alliance forces are killing refugees.

Ethnic Tutsis from eastern Congo and Rwandan Tutsis form the core of the Alliance forces.

``We've heard many reports of massacres of refugees in the area, but I haven't smelled death or seen bodies yet,'' said Craig Sanders, a UNHCR field officer. ``But it may be that villagers disposed of the bodies ... We heard that many had been thrown in the river. We just don't know.''

U.N. aid workers and Alliance justice minister Mwenze Kongolo, said they had found uniforms of the former Rwandan Armed Forces at several locations where the refugees have been steadily emerging from the forest -- indicating some refugees were members of the former Hutu-dominated army.

Kongolo, who flew to Mbandaka, 372 miles northeast of Kinshasa, to look into the allegations of massacres, said no killings of refugees had taken place in the region except ``for those who fired on our soldiers.''

Kongolo called accounts by refugees of the killings both in Mbandaka and Kisangani ``pure lies.''

In a report Monday, the French medical aid group, Doctors Without Borders, said at least 190,000 Rwandan refugees were still unaccounted for in Congo.

UNHCR plans to operate six flights a day from Mbandaka to Kigali, Rwanda.

The agency said about 10,000 people have already crossed the Congo and Ubangi rivers to the neighboring Republic of Congo -- some with their weapons.