GISENYI, Rwanda (AP) — On bare feet already torn from walking on volcanic rock, a tiny band of Hutu refugees managed to make it back to its homeland Thursday.
Dozens of their compatriots died of thirst back in eastern Zaire, they said, and others were surviving by sucking water from roots. As the survivors told their story to U.N. aid workers, European ministers met in Brussels to figure out how to get food and water to about 1 million Rwandan Hutu refugees still in Zaire.
The U.N. refugee agency said it has had no contact since Saturday with the refugees, who have fled camps in eastern Zaire to escape fighting between Zairian army troops and rebels. Most were believed to be without food or water.
Spokesman Ray Wilkinson said the five Hutus who returned Thursday told him they had seen dozens of their companions die.
U.N. officials were to meet Friday in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, to discuss how an international force could be put in place to secure routes for food distribution and the return of refugees to Rwanda.
“The only solution is if we can return them home,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata after an emergency meeting in Belgium on humanitarian aid failed to make a significant breakthrough.
She said the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan government had given assurances that Hutu refugees had nothing to fear. She insisted the presence of international monitors would ensure that human rights would be respected during the return.
The Rwandan Hutus fled their country when a Tutsi-controlled government took power in 1994, ending a Hutu-led massacre that killed a half-million Rwandans, most of them Tutsis.
The 15-nation European Union said it would pressure the U.N. Security Council to approve plans to secure military protection for aid and return corridors from Zaire but failed to agree which, if any, EU member-state should send support troops.
Meanwhile, in Bukavu, the Zairian town at the south end of Lake Kivu on the border with Rwanda, three delegates from the International Red Cross met with rebel leader Laurent Desire Kabila, reportedly to discuss resumption of humanitarian aid in the area. Kabila is seeking the ouster of longtime Zairian ruler Mobuto Sese Seko.
It appeared to be the first contact between rebels and aid agencies since the region fell into rebel hands. The aid workers refused to speak to reporters.
The Red Cross and other aid organizations pulled all international staff out of eastern Zaire when recent ethnic fighting prevented them from doing their work.
In Kinshasa, Zaire’s capital, thousands of Zairian students barged past soldiers onto the Parliament grounds and paraded with the coffin of one of three students killed in anti-Tutsi and anti-Rwandan protests this week. Parliament was disrupted but soldiers let the protest go on despite a government ban on rallies.
The students oppose Prime Minister Leon Kengo wa Dondo, whose mother is a Rwandan Tutsi, and have demanded his resignation.
Wilkinson said the current round of fleeing refugees — hundreds of thousands of them are believed to have left camps in eastern Zaire and are reported headed west away from the Rwandan border — were reportedly moving in groups of 40 to 100 people.
Several told Wilkinson they had returned to the camps to fetch water while others moved north toward the Masisi forest where water is not so scarce. The refugees said some Zairians were selling five-gallon jugs of water for $10 along the road.
Wilkinson said 336 Hutu refugees had returned to Rwanda since Monday.