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Rwandan refugees make solemn homecoming

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May 8, 1997
Web posted at: 1:00 p.m. EDT (1700 GMT)

Latest developments:

From Correspondent Catherine Bond

KIGALI, Rwanda (CNN) -- The latest group of Rwandan refugees returned to Kigali Thursday after six months in Zaire, their clothes ragged, their faces wary. Although most refugees are relieved to be returning, they fear what might lie ahead.

Authorities suspect some of the returning Hutu refugees were involved in 1994's slaughter of more than 800,000 minority Tutsis. Buses waited to take the refugees for security checks as they got off the direct flight from Kisangani, Zaire.

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On the other side of the airport, customs checks were conducted; in this context, they seemed almost bizarre. Few refugees had much luggage to bring home -- a little plastic sheeting, small sacks of possessions, the odd Bible. Nonetheless, they were lined up to be searched for bits of metal.

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Then, officials sprayed their feet, presumably a precaution against spreading disease.

Easier going in home country

Despite the quiet tension among the crowds of refugees, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says they have had better cooperation in Rwanda than in Kisangani, where their efforts to repatriate refugees safely have been frustrated by the authorities in control.

"Even on the Rwandan side we have had to negotiate quite a bit," acknowledged Romani Urasa, a spokesman for the refugee agency in Rwanda. But in general, he said, a functioning system and reasonable procedures had been negotiated.


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The United Nations and other relief agencies were granted restricted access to the survivors just over a week ago. Since then, some 10,000 have been repatriated by air. Most are Hutus who left after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

60 refugees dying daily in Zaire

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The ongoing airlift removed them from the horrors they experienced in eastern Zaire -- including a final week of hell, as camps south of the city were attacked then cut off from aid. The agency hopes to bring home more than 80,000 refugees in all, and quickly -- more than 60 refugees were dying in Kisangani each day, officials said.

To ask refugees exactly what happened near Kisangani puts their lives at risk. Only the most basic questions are safe for everyone concerned. One man, for example, tells relief workers, quite plausibly, that he cut his foot on a tree in the forest.

He is one of the lucky few whose family has survived more or less intact. His 2-year-old is clearly starving, but another child and his wife are still alive.

Most refugees making it back to their homeland now are men, aid workers say, because the men are stronger. Rwanda says it's because many were Hutu militiamen. "I assume there will be some arrests," Urasa said.

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Children pose challenge

Yet it is the thousands of children arriving from Kisangani who may create the greatest challenge in repatriation. Many lost track of their parents during the first attacks on refugee camps last October. Now, identified only by wrist tags and labels showing where in Rwanda they are from, they have made their way back without any adult relatives.

The younger the child, the more difficult the process of tracing his relatives, aid workers say. Some of the youngest can no longer remember what their parents look like.

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