Facebook Twitter



Little children ran out of houses and village elderly stood by the road to greet a handful of Rwandan refugees returning home Saturday for the first time after fleeing to Zaire during last year's civil war.

"Welcome, welcome," villagers said to the small group who returned voluntarily to their commune in Gishiye in Rwanda's northwestern border region of Gisenyi after the U.N. refugee agency negotiated an end to Zaire's forced expulsions.The voluntary U.N. program, which began on Friday a day after Zaire halted its mass repatriation of more than 15,000 Rwandan refugees, ground to a virtual halt Saturday when only 47 people agreed to go home.

Instead, tens of thousands of Rwandan Hutus who had fled the Zairean net came out of hiding in woods and hills, returning to their camps on Zaire's eastern border and shunning the U.N. offer to escort them home.

After more than a year in camps partly controlled by Hutu hard-liners, many refugees fear that if they return, the Tutsis now in power in Rwanda will wreak a merciless and random revenge for last year's mass killings of up to 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

U.N. human rights observers said they had reports of refugee men disappearing after being brought to a transit center near Gisenyi for screening.

"We are concerned about people disappearing. We have been denied access to the refugees during the week," said one observer who asked not to be named.

"People may be disappearing because they (the soldiers) may have files on them or they can have names."

The reports could not be confirmed independently and human rights observers declined to say how many people had disappeared so far.

About 1 million Hutu refugees remain inside Zaire and unless the pace of voluntary returns speeds up U.N. officials fear Zairean troops could go back on the offensive.