Wandering the Wilderness Of Zaire's Broken Land

After years in camps and months scavenging in woods, some Hutu refugees go home. Many remain on the run.

Faustin Rukuratabaro's only possession was a shredded beige jacket infested with spiders, but he considered himself a most fortunate man.

He emerged from eastern Zaire's Walikale woods with several thousand other Rwandan Hutu refugees last month, exhausted but very much alive after nearly three months of scavenging while in hiding. Mr. Rukuratabaro, a small man who does not consider himself especially strong, and his fellow travelers have proved just how hardy humans can be.

His feet were sore and his shirt sleeves hung in dirty strips. He became separated from his wife and doesn't know where she is. But unlike tens of thousands of other refugees who have been hiding in the dense bamboo forest since early November, he was discovered by the United Nations agency for refugees in Zaire, which planned to take him home.

"I sometimes wondered whether the ordeal would ever end," he said, climbing aboard a UN truck.

Rukuratabaro and up to 200,000 others fled deeper into eastern Zaire in early November after Zairean rebels, reportedly backed by Rwanda's Tutsi leaders, attacked their refugee camps.

Fearful of reprisals by the current Tutsi government, the refugees were among the more than 1 million Hutus who fled Rwanda after the 1994 genocide of ethnic Tutsis. Once in the camps, they were held virtually hostage by Hutu militias and former soldiers for more than 2-1/2 years. Their captivity continued even after the breakup of the camps, and they were only able to free themselves during a rebel advance on the forest.

Rukuratabaro described people being herded in small groups by the Hutu militias. He says the militiamen threatened to shoot them if they strayed from the group - even to search for food. His band decided to make a run for it when the rebels attacked. The militias were too busy fighting the rebels to stop them, and they escaped safely.

Rukuratabaro and his small group of 60 other refugees survived in the inhospitable woods by scooping up rain water with leaves and digging for roots and bugs.

"We ate as many leaves as we could," Rukuratabaro said. "I wouldn't even know how to identify what we ate."

His group started out with about two weeks' worth of provisions from the UN-supervised refugee camps that they fled. When supplies ran out, they raided the plots of local farmers, stealing cassava, mangos, and corn.

By the time they reached Buniakiri in the middle of January, most had traded their UN-issued blue plastic sheeting and water jugs for food, and few had the mattress rolls or jackets they had set out with.

For months, the Rwandan government has rejected claims by relief organizations that hundreds of thousands of refugees like Rukuratabaro remained behind when more than 1 million returned home in November and December from eastern Zaire and Tanzania. However, relief workers say that as many as 200,000 more refugees may still be hiding in the dense forest, which was once a sanctuary for gorillas.

Among them are 40,000 refugees who fled encampments in the Shabunda area the past week following reports that the Zairean rebels had captured a nearby town. The UN says an additional 130,000 gathered around Tingi-Tingi are in poor condition and have little food.

On Feb. 3, Rwanda's envoy to the UN insisted that those people included 40,000 former Hutu soldiers involved in the genocide and their families, and thus did not qualify for humanitarian support.

UN officials said Feb. 10, however, that they were negotiating to open up a safe corridor to allow the refugees to return home. The Zairean rebels, who now control an 875-mile-long swath of territory, have pledged not to attack areas near Tingi-Tingi, where the majority of Rwandan refugees are congregated.

Rwanda's Refugee Crisis: Time Line

April-July 1994: Rwanda's Army and militias incite the Hutu majority to slaughter up to 1 million minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

July 4, 1994: Tutsi rebels defeat the Hutu-led Army, capture Kigali (the capital), and install a new government.

July 19, 1994: More than 1.2 million Hutu refugees began pouring south into Zaire, fearing reprisals after the genocide. The UN says an additional 510,000 fled to Tanzania and 250,000 to Burundi. Exiled Hutu soldiers and militiamen keep the refugees virtually hostage for the next 2-1/2 years.

Nov. 15, 1996: Zairean Tutsi rebels break up the refugee camps in eastern Zaire, causing the militia and former troops to flee the camps. This frees more than 500,000 refugees to return home to Rwanda.

Dec. 31, 1996: More than 1.2 million Rwandan Hutu refugees have returned home from Zaire and neighboring Tanzania. The US and Rwanda say only pockets of refugees are left, and no international aid is needed to return them home. The UN estimates that as many as 200,000 refugees could remain hidden in the forests of eastern Zaire.

January 1997: A band of refugees walks out of the forest, disproving rumors they didn't exist. They had been held captive for more than two months by Hutu militiamen and were only able to break free after Zairean Tutsi rebels began flushing the militia out of the forest.

Feb. 10, 1997: UN officials begin negotiating to set up a safe corridor to let up to 200,000 refugees return home to Rwanda.

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