In 1994, when hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees -- the losing side in Rwanda's civil war -- fled to Zaire the United Nations set up camps for them. Among the refugees were thousands of soldiers, loyal to the defeated Hutu government, who had massacred half a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. They began using the camps as a base to attack government forces in Rwanda and Burundi and, aided by the army and local militiamen, to attack Tutsis living in Zaire.
In October, the Tutsis struck back with the help of other groups opposed to the Zairian government. They rebelled in a southern province and drove out the government army. They took three main towns in eastern Zaire, including Goma, where relief operations for the refugees were based. Zaire claimed Rwandan government troops were helping them fight.
Refugees in Zaire-- 752K QuickTime movie Christiane Amanpour reports on the refugee children -- 1 MB QuickTime movie
The refugees were now cut off from food, water, and medical supplies. Some fled the camps to forests to the west. Disease and hunger were setting in. A catastrophe was in the making. Canada, the United States and other nations were preparing to send troops on a rescue mission when, on November 15, the Zairian rebels stormed the largest refugee camp, routing the Hutu gunmen, and freeing the refugees to go home to Rwanda.
Then followed one of the most stunning spectacles of the year. A river of people 15 miles (25 km) long, streaming toward Rwanda. They crossed the border at the rate of 70 people a minute.
"It's an unstoppable wall of people," said Brenda Barton, a spokeswoman for the United Nations World Food Program.
At year's end, the plan for the international rescue mission was scaled down, calling only for unarmed reconnaissance planes to find refugees in eastern Zaire and for an airdrop of supplies -- a plan opposed by the government and the rebels.
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