BUNIAKIRI, ZAIRE — Charles Mutabazi walked out of the Walikale forest on Monday a thriving man, defying reports he was dead or didn't exist.
The refugee, along with at least 4,000 other Rwandan Hutus, hid two months ago in the dense bamboo woods in eastern Zaire after fleeing attacks by Zairean Tutsi rebels on refugee camps.
For two months, the Rwandan and United States governments have poured cold water on claims by relief organizations that hundreds of thousands of refugees remained behind when more than 1 million returned home last month from eastern Zaire and Tanzania.
But it became clear when this reporter traveled in rebel territory that the 4,000 refugees returning home this week are just a portion of thousands and thousands more still on the run.
Mr. Mutabazi and his weary band, sitting by the road with glazed looks of exhaustion, say that many of the refugees hiding in the bamboo forest are only now being flushed out by a new rebel advance toward the strategic town of Kisangani.
"Many, there are many more," he says, asking this reporter - apparently the first Western journalist to reach this small village - for a banana. He carefully places it in a shredded pocket, patting it periodically to ensure it has not gone astray.
International relief workers say that although it is impossible to verify for now, the refugees report that a further 80,000 to 100,000 are hiding in the Walikale woods. The dense forest lies on the 330-mile road to Kisangani, which is expected to be the site of the decisive battle for the control of eastern Zaire.
The refugees are converging in increasing numbers on this tiny village, looking remarkably fit considering they have been living on roots and rainwater for much of their two-month ordeal.
"They are in incredibly good condition considering what they have been through," says one aid worker, handing out protein biscuits as the refugees wait for trucks to take them back to Rwanda.
The refugees have overrun tiny Buniakiri, sitting by the side of the road munching ears of corn and beans stolen from the locals' trampled fields. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is trucking swaying human loads to the border with Rwanda to repatriate them, but says it cannot keep up with the flow of people still pouring in.
These refugees were among the more than 1 million Hutus living for 2-1/2 years in camps in eastern Zaire near Goma and Bukavu. They fled Rwanda in 1994 and were held virtual hostage by Hutu Interahamwe militias and soldiers who carried out the genocide of up to 1 million ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Some 640,000 refugees flooded home to Rwanda late last year after the Rwandan-backed Zairean rebels headed by Laurent Kabila attacked the camps and captured a large swath of territory. Later, about 500,000 refugees returned from camps in Tanzania.
The refugees' unexpected return was a source of relief to both the US and Rwanda, which were unenthusiastic about a proposed international force to facilitate the mass repatriation to stave off a feared humanitarian catastrophe. They have been at odds with relief organizations, which have asserted that large numbers of refugees were still wandering around in the woods in need of assistance.
Observers agree that the exodus of refugees from the Walikale forest resulted from a rebel push to consolidate territory in its advance toward Kisangani, a strategic vanguard point for the Zairean Army.
Mr. Kabila's Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire already controls a 400-mile-long swath stretching from Goma and Uvira to Bunia to the north and westward toward Walikale. The rebels appear to be launching a pincer move toward Kisangani from Bunia and Bukavu.
Heavy fighting has been reported around Walikale and Shabunda, which are more than 100 miles east of Kisangani. Local observers believe that the rebels are trying to separate the refugees from the Interahamwe and soldiers of the former Rwandan Hutu regime so that the alliance can better hunt down the small pockets of their enemy.
This supports the testimony of the refugees, who say they broke free from their Interahamwe captors when the rebels attacked in the forest. "The Interahamwe forced us to stay in small groups. They threatened to shoot us if we strayed from the group to get food deeper in the forest," one refugee said.
"We decided to make a run for it when the [rebels] attacked. The Interahamwe were too busy fighting back. They said they were going toward Kisangani to help the Zairean Army defend the town. So we went in the opposite direction."
Some of the refugees were silent with anxiety waiting atop the trucks to be transported like cattle to the Rwandan border. They said they worried about what awaited them on the other side. "The Interahamwe told us all this time that they [Rwanda's Tutsi-led government] would kill us if we returned," said one barefoot man who planned to return to his home in Cigaringari. "Now we hear different stories that it is safe. I won't know until I go back."