KIGALI, Rwanda -- They are coming back now, walking with their heads laden with bags and mats and food, slowly returning to the killing field they fled.
Their flight to Zaire had brought only a different kind of misery -- disease and starvation that killed them by the thousands.
They come along the winding mountain roads that lead into this capital city, once home to more than 700,000 people. A few days ago, it seemed nearly deserted.
By the end of last week, though, the markets were filling again with the sounds of commerce and the streets were beginning to come alive, even if the buildings remained mostly vacant, their windows shattered, their walls pockmarked with bullet holes.
The returning refugees are most visible on the road from Goma, the Zairian lakeside resort that became a disease-infested death camp when more than a million of Rwanda's 7.5 million people dashed desperately into it.
These refugees had fled the armies of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), finally victorious after a decade-long civil war.
"I prefer to go and die in my home country instead of dying in Zaire," said Leonard Ntibankundiye, 29, as he began the trek toward the Rwandan border. He was only a day's walk from his home. Many others, walking barefoot, were heading to Kigali, a two-week journey.
Like so many on the march, Mr. Ntibankundiye seemed almost resigned to his death, certain that if it did not come from cholera in Goma it would come at the hands of RPF troops in Rwanda, a certainty reinforced in his mind by the deposed government with much blood on its hands.
Like hundreds of thousands, he had heard the warnings broadcast by the toppled government from a radio station somewhere in Zaire.
"Even today they killed another 300 people," Paul Nzibukira said of what he had heard on the radio. He spoke standing in a fetid refugee camp north of Goma where the dead line the roadside and the dying are in almost every one of the makeshift shelters that climb the volcanic hillsides.
Someone in the crowd behind him mimicked cutting off his arms and pulling out his eyes, indicating how the RPF would treat them.
But on the road from Goma into Rwanda, the people walked peacefully past roadblocks manned by well-armed, disarmingly young RPF soldiers.
Thousands lined the road for miles from the border. But their numbers were dwarfed by those in the camps near Goma, an immense, nearly unimaginable crowd of refugees.
So the homecoming was just a trickle. It must turn into a mighty river if this small, beautiful mountainous country is to once again become one of the world's most densely populated nations.
If that is to happen, the country's new government must convince the refugees they will be safe at home.
So far, the new government is making all the right noises, saying all the appropriate things, garnering praise from international observers that it hopes will eventually help inspire confidence in the people it aspires to govern.
"The ones that left were told that someone is coming to kill you, that the RPF is composed of killers, that you must run away or otherwise you will be exterminated," said Faustin Twagiramungu, the former head of an opposition party who is prime minister in the RPF's new government.
"If I am telling you a lion is coming and you are in the forest, what do you do? Do you stay there or run away? So that is what these people are doing because they are fearful of the RPF, but this is a lie."
Mr. Twagiramungu is a Hutu, a member of Rwanda's majority ethnic group. In the shorthand of Rwandan politics, the RPF is considered a Tutsi organization, representing the minority ethnic group, the country's traditional rulers who lost power in a bloody, ethnic-based revolution in 1963.
Most dead were Tutsis
Since then, ethnic violence has been the rule in Rwanda, never more bloody than in the wave of killings that began in April when 200,000 to 500,000 died.
Most of the dead were Tutsis, but many progressive Hutus died as well, victims of hard-liners in the Hutu-dominated government who sought to scuttle a planned accord with the RPF.
Prime Minister Twagiramungu recalls the dates of the various Rwandan massacres: 1959, 1963, 1967, 1972, 1973, 1990, 1992, 1993, now 1994.
The problem, he and other new government officials say, is that those killings went unpunished.
This time, they say, the reaction will be different.
"We don't want impunity in this country," he said. "Do people think they can have power after killing a half-million of our people? It must be closed as a chapter of political culture.
"We don't want a culture of hatred as a basis for taking power. We don't want impunity for those people. Impunity must be ended here."
He estimated that 32,000 government officials were implicated in the killings that began in April after a suspicious plane crash killed President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu.
Aside from government officials, the prime minister said, informal militias carried out many of the slayings, apparently after receiving orders.
All must be 'prosecuted'
"All those people have to be prosecuted, no matter how long it will take, they have to be taken to court, tried, convicted, acquitted, whatever," Mr. Twagiramungu said.
The prospect of tens of thousands of people on trial for genocide or other war crimes raises the specter of yet more ethnic revenge, this time by the Tutsis against the Hutus.
But the new Rwandan government seems to be doing what it can to alleviate those fears.
It has agreed to have international observers participate in any trials, if not have the trials conducted by an international tribunal.
"I am very confident that this process will take place in accordance with international procedures of law," said Peter Hansen, the United Nations undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs. He was speaking at the Kigali airport after meeting with the new government.
"A government secretly planning some sort of counter-revenge measures would not give the type of assurances this government has."
But beyond bringing in the concept of punishment for ethnic killings, the new government faces a larger task in reconstructing a nation from deeply divided segments.
Mr. Twagiramungu pointed out that Rwanda does not have traditional African tribal differences, that its people share the same language and culture -- though some have tried to make much of physical differences between the taller, thinner Tutsis and smaller, rounder Hutus.
"Telling people that those have a flat nose, while others have a sharp nose, that some people are 2 meters tall while others are 1.6 meters, that one people have got 10 cows, while others have a hoe and a place to grow beans, it is ridiculous," he said.
are the luckiest people in Africa. We share the same philosophy of living here. Ask what you call Hutu and Tutsi, they will tell you the same.
"We have the same language; we have the same traditional religion. There is no performance of any dance or song which is particular to Hutu or Tutsi.
A fresh start
"I have been told that some people are fighting because some people have got big buttocks and others have got small buttocks. What kind of African war are we waging here? Killing 500,000 people because of their nose? It is terrible.
"Now, what to do about it? We start from the bottom. We have to teach our children how to live together, that we are the same people. This is how we are going to solve this problem, with a new philosophy for a new Rwanda and a new Rwandans."
If two people could represent the new Rwandans, they would be Marie Chantal Mukankaka, 25, and Nestor Ndemeye, 28. She is a Tutsi; he is a Hutu. They are engaged to be married.
The smiles on their faces told how happy they were to see their home town of Kigali. They were returning after a month away, a week of that spent in Goma.
"It was terrible," Mr. Ndemeye said.
"There was no food. People were dying."
War postpones wedding
Her father was killed in the massacres that began the war and postponed their wedding plans.
"We are glad to be back, because we did not want to be refugees," he said. "We only want peace and we will have it because everyone who did the killings is still in Zaire. It is only those who killed who should be afraid to come home."
Mr. Ndemeye and Miss Mukankaka are university students and their support of the new government pointed out another facet of Rwanda's violent schism -- it was not so much Hutu against Tutsi as lower class against upper class, ignorant rural peasants against educated urban dwellers.
Mr. Twagiramungu referred to the "simple people" in the refugee camps who had fallen for the propaganda of the previous government.
Others talked of the many wealthy and politically progressive Hutus who died in the massacres along with Tutsis whose traditional ruling position gave them disproportionate representation in the upper economic classes.
This puts Rwanda's tragedy in a different perspective, not as a peculiarly African problem, but as an exaggerated version of a tactic employed by many governments, the exploitation of the prejudices of the uneducated in order to retain power.
"I feel bad about what has happened in my country, of course, but to feel bad does not mean that I have lost my hope," Mr. Twagiramungu said.
"We have to teach our children a new philosophy so that the future generation can have a better life.
"After these sacrifices of millions, or at least thousands, this chapter must be closed. We must find a new basis for a new Rwanda and new Rwandans. We cannot do otherwise."