Running Scared

IN LUBONA, RWANDA, IT WAS TIME to party. Each of the village's 20 families welcomed long-lost relatives--or waited for them. The village took on a giddy, carnival air. People drank Primus beer or banana juice, and everyone ate sardinelike fish called sambassa. JosEphine Bakunzibake, 22, arrived with her mother-in-law and four children after a six-mile hike up steep cliffs over Lake Kivu. Her mother, father and neighbors jumped up and down, screaming, as they embraced. ""I am so happy,'' said Bakunzibake through her tears. ""I am home... It is over.''

Was Rwanda's long ordeal really ending? In Gisenyi province, local residents lined the streets to welcome refugees home. Some of them even applauded. And these were Tutsis clapping for Hutus. That alone was a hopeful sign for Rwandan refugees who originally fled over the border to escape retribution for the massacre of nearly a million Tutsis in 1994. After two years in miserable refugee camps in Zaire, hundreds of thousands of people were heading home.

New fighting has broken the bonds that held these refugees in exile. Zairean rebels supported by Rwanda recently have moved against the refugee camps in Zaire to put an end to cross-border raids by remnants of the defeated Hutu army. The Hutu soldiers lost control of some of the larger camps, which have been sustained by Western food aid. And once gunmen no longer threatened those who tried to leave, many decided to test the claims by Hutu militias that they'd be abused by the new Rwandan regime. ""It was all lies,'' said Hutu refugee Alexis Bazirusha. ""The Hutu soldiers said if we return to Rwanda, [the Tutsis] will kill us.'' He stared ahead at the river of refugees flowing homeward. ""I'm not afraid of going back to Rwanda.''

Not long after the refugees began their homeward trek, President Bill Clinton told a news conference that U.S. troops would head for central Africa on a mission that was already outdated. As many as 5,000 soldiers were to join a multinational force, led by Canadians, to feed the refugees and help them home to Rwanda. ""The world's most powerful nation must not turn its back on so many desperate people and so many innocent children,'' Clinton said. In virtually the same breath, the president also announced that he was extending the one-year deadline for U.S. troops in Bosnia; a smaller contingent will probably stay there to monitor the ceasefire until June 1998. Republicans in Congress are unlikely to block Clinton's plans in Bosnia or Africa, but they will surely criticize them. ""I remain deeply concerned about the increasing use of troops for "policing' operations throughout the world,'' said Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond.

By the weekend, everything about the American mission in Zaire was up in the air--its size, its mission, its length of stay, even whether it should go at all. ""If this trend continues... it will not eliminate the need for [the mission], but it will change it,'' Defense Secretary William Perry said. Some refugees said that news of the multinational force had triggered their decision to go home. But the Rwandan government, now closely allied to Washington, said it no longer supported an American military intervention. It wants Western countries to spend those resources on resettling the refugees in Rwanda instead. Some international aid workers, meanwhile, argued strenuously that the force should come ahead. ""Over 500,000 refugees are not on the move,'' said Michele Quintaglie, a spokesperson for the World Food Program. ""We hope [the fact that some refugees are returning] will encourage them to come back [to Rwanda], too. But this should not be an excuse for the world to turn its back on the refugees who remain.''

Actually, the world has been trying quietly to turn its back ever since the genocide in Rwanda erupted in 1994. The horrifying tales of mass murder, committed by neighbor against neighbor with machete and club, provoked a global outcry and led to the establishment of an international war-crimes tribunal to punish the culprits. But the tribunal has accomplished almost nothing. The Tutsi-led government of Rwanda has locked up more than 85,000 Hutus who, it claims, participated in the genocide. The accused languish in overcrowded prisons, with little hope of receiving a fair trial. Meanwhile, the neighboring country of Burundi is siz- zling with Hutu-Tutsi hatreds of its own. (That, indeed, was where White House aides had expected the next crisis in central Africa to erupt.) And although the civil war in Zaire has herded the refu- gees home, it also threatens the frail Zairean government and could destabilize the region even further.

When the rebels smashed into Goma early this month, they discovered that retreating Zairean soldiers had left them little to loot. Broken bottles, trampled business files and scraps of worthless currency bearing the visage of Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko littered the streets. ""They took my radio, television, two bicycles and my wife's best clothes,'' said Shamba Balthazar, 33, who worked for the YMCA before all the foreign aid workers left town. The rebels didn't seem interested in looting. Dressed in street clothes, flip-flop sandals and a hodgepodge of uniforms taken from defeated soldiers, they sipped beer and talked of taking over the whole country.

But the victors can be brutal, too. That was obvious in Mugunga, once the world's largest refugee camp with half a million inhabitants. Twelve corpses, all men of fighting age, lay piled together next to the lava-rock wall of a community latrine. Each had been executed with a bullet to the back of the head. A 12th body, evidently a man who tried to run, lay a few yards away. Most of the Hutu refugees interviewed by NEWSWEEK said the rebels were responsible. A few claimed it was a last brutal act by the Hutu militiamen who fled as the rebels advanced. But all of them were inured to the horror. As they packed up to go home, they scarcely glanced at the bodies. A pile of 26 bodies, mostly women and children hacked to death with machetes, lay nearby. Those who killed them still roam the countryside. In spite of the joyous homecomings in Rwanda, central Africa clearly hasn't seen the last of its ordeal.