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Rwandan refugees stream home from Tanzania

President promises them safety

December 15, 1996
Web posted at: 11:40 a.m. EST (1630 GMT)

RUSUMO, Rwanda (CNN) -- Thousands of Rwandan refugees Sunday crossed a narrow border bridge leading back to their homeland, where they were repatriated after years of exile in Tanzania. Rwandan President Pasteur Bizimungu welcomed the refugees home.

"I came to reassure them that nothing bad will happen to them," Bizimungu said at the border near the Rusumo Falls.

boy returning

Tanzania has been home in exile to over half a million ethnic Hutus, most of whom fled Rwanda after Tutsis deposed the Hutu regime two years ago. The Hutus fear retribution upon return to Rwanda for the slaughter of at least 500,000 Tutsis in 1994 at the hands of Hutu militias.

Aid workers at the border estimated about 1,200 were crossing per hour. The flow of people began Saturday with small groups on foot or bicycles, and several thousand were believed to have crossed overnight.

The line of refugees stretched far into the horizon, out of eyesight and through the dense forests, as refugees waited for their chance to pass back into Rwanda.

Those who crossed seemed happy to be home.


"I'm very glad to be in Rwanda. This is my home," said Namani Munyantore, 26, who was accompanied by his wife and two children on the eight-hour trek.

He said he and his family walked 18 miles (29 km) from Lumasi camp, the first to be emptied Saturday by Tanzanian police. No force was used in the operation, he said.

Tanzania wants all Rwandan Hutus remaining in the country out by December 31.

Aid worker: Tanzania helps in 'humane manner'

Before the column of refugees reached the border, witnesses said hundreds of thousands of refugees were streaming toward Rusumo Falls from as far away as 60 miles (100 km). The movements began Saturday, apparently after a meeting between the refugee camp leaders and Tanzanian officials.

Aid agencies set up water points, health posts and biscuit distribution sites along the route.

On Friday, Hutu extremists led the refugees deeper into Tanzania to prevent their return home, telling them Rwanda's new Tutsi-led government would kill them. But Tanzanian troops headed the movement off and ordered refugees to walk back toward four giant refugee camps -- Benaco, Lukole, Mushuhura, and Lumasi.

Some Tanzanian army troops walked with the refugees, but there were no reports of violence.

"There were some military on the road, however they were in no way hurting the refugees," said Linda Stops of the International Federation of the Red Cross. "They just seemed to be more or less standing guard."

Judith Melby of the U.N. refugee agency said it appeared that all of the camps were emptying.

Most of those returning to Rwanda have homes within 18 miles (30 km) of the border so they will not have much further to walk once they reach their homeland, according to Michele Quintaglie of U.N. World Food Program.


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