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Rwandan refugees flood back toward Tanzania camps

December 13, 1996
Web posted at: 12:50 p.m. EST (1750 GMT)


BENACO CAMP, Tanzania (CNN) -- In a sudden about-face, tens of thousands of Rwandan refugees on Friday headed back toward camps in Tanzania that they had abandoned the day before, aid workers said.

"This is a total about-face," Michele Quintaglie of the U.N. World Food Program said. "Only 24 hours ago, we witnessed columns of refugees going in one direction. Now they're going back."

Nearly half a million refugees on Thursday trekked deeper into Tanzania -- away from four giant camps near the Tanzania-Rwanda border -- to avoid being repatriated by the end of the month, a deadline announced by the Tanzanian government and the UNHCR last week. Hutu refugees fear retribution for the 1994 genocide of minority Tutsis in Rwanda if they go home.

On Friday, some crossed into Rwanda, but thousands more broke through a Tanzanian army cordon and headed back to the camps. Soldiers at first beat some with sticks but gave up when it was clear they had been overrun.

"We were told by a Tanzanian army person today that they are gently trying to push the refugees back into Rwanda. They put up a road barricade earlier today in order to stop the influx deeper into Tanzania," Julie Johnstone of the World Food Program told CNN.

Johnstone said it was unclear exactly how many refugees returned to camps. But she said the Tanzanian military was able to "turn around a very large number of refugees" and keep them from moving deeper into Tanzania.

Tanzania holds 535,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees, more than any other Central African country, and the government has given them until December 31 to leave voluntarily.

Asked if the refugees felt threatened by the army, Johnstone said, "No. The Tanzanian government has been very good to the refugees here. They're in very good hands." icon (264K/24 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

The greatest problem, she said, is that if the refugees move deep into Tanzania there will be "no provisions for water or assistance of any kind." icon (315K/27 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

She added, "I think at this point (the refugees) are just very, very confused."

Reuters contributed to this report.


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