At first they came in ones and twos, putting one foot carefully in front of the other, balancing bundles on the crowns of their heads.
Amid the early morning bustle of Goma, Zaire, they were scarcely noticed. Then the scattered groups began coalescing into long lines, and what was happening became clear: These were Rwandan Hutu refugees, and they were finally returning home.
The deluge of refugees may be the long-desired breakthrough in the 2-1/2-year refugee crisis in Central Africa. But while hopes have been lifted, this volatile region is still not safe from the threat of war or further humanitarian tragedy, diplomats say.
Some 300,000 Hutu refugees have crossed into Rwanda from eastern Zaire so far, prompting Rwanda to say that a planned Canadian-led 10,000-man international protection force was no longer needed to stave off a humanitarian catastrophe.
But with 500,000 to 700,000 refugees left behind in need of aid, more than 100,000 Zaireans internally displaced, and a large section of Zairean territory in the hands of Rwandan-backed rebels, only one stage in the crisis appears to be over.
Diplomats say that repatriation of the refugees is necessary to pacify a region stained by Hutu-Tutsi ethnic conflict. But the exodus will not alone resolve tensions in a heavily armed region with a sinister pattern of retribution.
"There are huge political issues. They are so big and massive that it will take years to resolve," says one source close to regional negotiations. "First you have the question of existing borders. Then there is the ethnic question - that minority Tutsi populations are governing Rwanda and Burundi. Add to that the problem that Zaire believes itself at war with those two countries. Then you have an explosive mix of about 10 different armed groups or government armies. And you can not ignore the fact that many in the Rwandan government feel like they were hit with a neutron bomb in the 1994 genocide."
'We've been waiting for this moment'
By midday Friday, the road leading to Goma was all but blocked by a murmuring, tramping mass of humanity. The surprise reports came in from the west: Mugunga Camp was emptying, Rwanda's exiled Hutu militias had vanished, and hundreds of thousands of people were on the move.
By 5 p.m. local time, the Rwandan president, Pasteur Bizimungu, was at the frontier, perched on a pile of potato sacks to witness "a great day in the history of Rwanda."
"I am very happy - we've been waiting for this moment for more than two years," he told the Monitor. "We can't say the civil war is over, because I understand that the [Hutu] militias and the former government army are still running in the bush. But without the population as a hostage, it will be easy to deal with that problem."
Six years ago, President Bizimungu's Rwandan Patriotic Front was a small group of mainly Tutsi refugees living in Uganda, barred from returning home by Rwanda's Hutu majority government. Two years ago they overran their homeland in a matter of weeks, ending the genocidal killing of 1 million ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Now, with the help of Zairean-born Tutsi rebels, they had smashed the power of Mugunga's Hutu extremists, exiles on their western frontier. Such decisive victories are rare in Africa's intractable, slow-burning civil wars.
In the thin strip of no-man's land between the Zairean and Rwandan border posts, refugee Jean-Marie sat down to rest with his wife and two children. Two days before he had been at Sake, 20 miles to the west, when fighters of Zaire's Tutsi-dominated rebel coalition had attacked the remnants of Rwanda's exiled Hutu Army. He and his family had fled to Rwanda through a downpour during the rainy-season night.
"I am very happy to be back," he said. "I am very tired. Two years ago we fled the war here [in Rwanda]. Now we are fleeing the war there."
Ten miles away in Mugunga camp, 41 scattered bodies testified to the realities of life in this ethnically divided region. Survivors said the dead refugees had been massacred when Tutsi Zairean rebels captured the camp. In one place, 10 men lay in a row, executed with small-arms fire. Forty yards away, a group of 27 women and children, including three babies, also lay dead.
A refugee, Emanuel Kagarama, was too hungry and ill to join the river of humanity winding its way toward Rwanda. He looked at the bodies and contemplated his own future.
"If I am afraid, what can I do?" he said. "I have no choice but to go back. I cannot stay here."
The returnees were among the 1.2 million who fled in April 1994, fearing reprisals from the Tutsi-led Army and government that seized power after the genocide of more than half a million Tutsis orchestrated by Hutu Interahamwe militias. The camps in Zaire were then used by the ousted militias to stage raids back into Rwanda.
The refugees, many of whom had been held virtual hostages by the former Rwandan troops and militias for 2-1/2 years, broke free when the camps were attacked by Tutsi rebels backed by Rwanda and their captors withdrew to the hills.
A litmus test for reconciliation
The refugees' return will be a litmus test of Hutu-Tutsi reconciliation in a conflict that has killed more than 1 million people in the past three years. Among the Hutus exiled in Zaire were many of those those responsible for the 1994 genocide.
The government claimed that it wants the refugees back - and now its capacity for justice will be under severe international scrutiny.
The Tutsi-dominated government's "bluff has been called," says one diplomat.
The government has the unenviable task of resettling hundreds of thousands of people in a densely populated country. Hutu homes and land were taken over by Tutsis who may suspect them of complicity in the genocide.
Aid organizations stress the need to weed out Hutu militias from genuine refugees. And they express concern about the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Zaireans and Rwandan refugees, who remain at risk from armed groups.