THOUSANDS of weary civilians fleeing Rwanda's civil war arrive daily in this French-protected humanitarian safety zone. Food sacks, light mattresses, or baskets of clothing are balanced on their heads. Makeshift huts of twigs and straw mushroom on the hillsides.
Mostly of the Hutu ethnic group, the refugees fear they will be killed by Tutsi rebels posted only a few miles from this front-line town if the French troops pull out of the safety zone in southwest Rwanda.
Ironically, uprooted Tutsi living in a French-protected camp near the town of Cyangugu, some 60 miles to the West, are also counting on French troops to guard them. Most lost family members in massacres carried out by local Hutu militia, allegedly directed by Hutu authorities.
``When the French go, if peace has not come ... they [Hutus] can kill us,'' says Manuel, a Tutsi survivor. If the French do pull out, he adds, ``we must be protected by other forces or moved.''
The rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front is setting up a government in the captured capital, Kigali. United Nations officials are trying to work out a cease-fire between the RPF and government Army.
But even a cease-fire would not convince most Hutu or Tutsi in this zone that they are safe. Cease-fires can be broken; the war could restart, as it has before. Ethnic fears and hatred run deep in Rwanda. So the French troops have become a buffer between the majority Hutu and the minority Tutsi until the UN or other troops can replace them.
The problem for the French is that the UN is moving slowly toward filling its Security Council-mandated troop strength of 5,500. And the French want to leave. ``We'd like to get away as soon as possible,'' says French Navy Comdr. Marin Gillier.
French public support for the continuing presence of French troops in Rwanda is thin, says Gerard Larome, a French diplomat visiting here last week. French political parties want other countries to step in.
``We are asking for rapid replacement of our troops,'' he says, pausing on a dirt road where Hutus have completely demolished Tutsi homes.
The mandate given to the French troop operations in Rwanda expires at the end of July. But Mr. Larome admits replacements are not likely to be here by then and talks of an August pullout. Commander Gillier says the French will not abandon people who could be slaughtered by their ethnic enemy. ``The French government won't leave anyone until there is someone to protect them.''
A few yards away, about 60 Navy and Army commandos in T-shirts finish their French military rations: canned chicken or beef, pate, coffee, crackers, and candy.
A joke among the troops here is that one French military ration is worth two to three plastic-wrapped rations used by United States troops in Somalia and the Gulf war.
``I'm happy we came with my troops,'' Gillier says. ``Its worth spending our whole life in the military just for these days,'' talking about the lives his troops have saved.
French troops helped rescue about 700 unaccompanied children from Butare just before the rebel RPF seized the town on July 3. Another 800 Tutsi were rescued from deep in a forest where they had been hiding for nearly two months from Hutu militia and the Rwandan Army. They are guarded by French soldiers now near the Zaire border.
But the 2,500 French troops that have been committed to Rwanda are limited in what they can do. For example, when a group of Rwandans fleeing Gikongoro to Cyangugu sought a French escort through the frequently militia-manned roadblocks, they were refused because a French officer said there were not enough troops to provide escorts.
Tutsi are in danger of being killed by the Hutu at the roadblocks. And even Hutu judged to be sympathizers with the RPF are in danger.
Gillier points out another limitation: ``We can protect them; we can't feed them.''
UN relief official Charles Petrie and representatives of several private relief agencies made a two-day tour last week of conditions in the French-protected safety zone, and say that more food and medical aid is urgently needed.
Roadsides are jammed with families camping and cooking some of the little food they manage to carry. A woman fleeing Butare on a small dirt road leading here pleads, ``I'm hungry,'' as a UN convoy passed by.
``We've seen over 100,000 of the more than 250,000 people on the move,'' Mr. Petrie says. Another 250,000 were already displaced in this area, says James Fennell, an emergency officer with CARE who also made the tour.