Refuge in Rwanda: for how long?

As night falls in the Kibango Camp, and 6,000 refugees from Burundi begin to prepare for another night in the open air, mothers and children gather around small campfires, stirring charred pots of furiously boiling rice and kidney beans. Scores of others in tattered, grimy clothes, with bare feet, stream through a packed-dirt schoolyard, balancing bales of banana leaves on their heads to spread over the ground for bedding.

Thick waves of smoke rise from thousands of small campfires that dot the gentle hill behind the red brick schoolhouse. And the air is filled with the din of coughs, crying infants, and crackling fires.

Virtually all the refugees here are members of the Hutu tribe, which constitutes 85 percent of Burundi's 5 million people. For the last two weeks, they have been pouring across a river which forms the natural boundary between these tiny landlocked east-central African countries. The United Nations estimates more than 50,000 have sought refuge in Rwanda.

They came with chilling accounts of bloody military assaults on unarmed peasants. A woman from a small village told how she was at home with her husband and children when the military came, rounded up the villagers, and shot them en masse. She fell to the ground and was left for dead. Her husband and children were killed.

A UN relief team has begun to mobilize international assistance for the refugees. Western diplomats in Kigali, Rwanda's capital, say that Western nations have already committed about $1 million, one-half million tons of emergency food, and vaccines. The stickiest problem remains where to move the refugees once school opens next week. Nearly every square inch of land is cultivated or occupied.

For the long term, the Rwanda government remains adamant that its offer of sanctuary is only temporary. As one of the world's least developed and most densely populated countries, it cannot absorb any more people. But as refugee Baltazar Meburu summarized the fears heard again and again here, ``We cannot return to Burundi because the Tutsi tribe will try to kill everyone who is a Hutu.''

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