AFTER nearly a month in a Zaire refugee camp and a three-week trek alongside thousands of other tired, hungry Rwandans, Imakirke Mukagatare and her family are on their way home.
About 80,000 of the estimated 850,000 refugees in Zaire's camp in Goma have already returned to their communities, says Adelmo Risi of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Those who make the difficult trek do so for a variety of reasons.
Mrs. Mukagatare says the poor conditions in the camps forced her to set aside her fears of returning to Rwanda. She sits shoeless on the ground - her bare feet blackened by the long walk - outside a clinic in Ruhengeri, a Rwandan town near the Zaire border. She expects to be home in three days.
``There was nothing to eat'' in Zaire, she says, resting among 12 other family members, their bundles of clothes, food, and sleeping mats beside them. ``I preferred to come back. So far, I have no fear.''
But other refugees are too afraid to take the steps she has taken. Although officials of the new Tutsi-dominated government say they want the 2 million Hutu Rwandans living outside the country to return to help restart the economy, they are equally determined to find and prosecute those responsible for the killing of more than 500,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates that began last April.
Fear of arrests and retaliation
Hutu refugees ``are discouraged by what the government has started doing - arresting [suspected] criminals,'' says a Zairean official working in the camps.
The UN Security Council's move toward war-crime trials ``is going to discourage a lot of people who might have been interested in returning from coming home,'' a United Nations official in Kigali adds.
Members of the defeated Rwandan Army and civilian officials of the now-defunct Hutu-majority government also have whipped up fears among refugees in Zaire, telling them they will be killed if they return to Rwanda.
The Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) recently was accused of torturing and killing Hutus, and the government has admitted to isolated incidents of abuse.
And members of the Rwandan Army are increasing their propaganda in the camps, says Alistair Story of UNHCR. ``The camps are becoming more and more organized by the military, which now has a massive presence among the refugees in the Goma area after living apart from them earlier.''
A young member of the defeated Rwandan Army, who was interviewed in a camp near Goma, looks around at the filthy conditions and agrees it is not a good place to live. But he fears going back with his superiors, who are probably going to be high on the RPF wanted list, he says.
Few supplies along routes
Yet some young Rwandans like Evariste Baziyaka, who says he ignored the Rwandan Army's efforts to create panic, have decided to return. He says many refugees lost family members in the camps, which convinced the survivors to make a grim choice: They are coming home because ``they prefer to die in their country,'' he says.
Mr. Baziyaka and his family are returning with hopes of starting up their farms and normal lives again, he says. Many families send one or two members back to Rwanda to see if it is safe. The members then return to the camps to collect the rest of the family.
But with little help available along the routes home, most Rwandans have had to survive on what they can carry on their heads. And many were already in poor shape from camp conditions in Zaire.
``The people coming out are tired, weak, malnourished - really exhausted,'' says Monique Nagelkerke, a Dutch relief worker with Medecins sans Frontieres.
The UN and private agencies are hoping more food and medical care for returning Rwandans will lure them back home, despite continuing uncertainties of how they will be treated by the RPF.
But most of the relief effort is still going to the roughly 1 million refugees who fled to the Goma area camps from northwestern Rwanda last month.
Other agencies are rushing to provide additional medical aid to returning Rwandans. Concern, an Irish charity, is opening a clinic along the main exodus route that passes by here; Americares is putting up a medical station; and the Canadian government is setting up a 400-bed hospital under UN auspices.
Several relief agencies are setting up feeding stations along the same exodus route - from Ghisenyi to near Ruhengeri. But so far, little of the UN's World Food Programme food stocks have reached returning refugees, as WFP continues to seek help with distribution from other agencies.
Compounding the problem, most refugees are returning too late to salvage their most recent crops. And they do not have seeds or tools for the next planting in September. ``If we get seeds, we can farm again,'' Mukagatare says.
Even those with food do not have much. ``We live on potatoes only,'' Baziyaka says. ``Our [other] stocks were stolen.''