CYIMBOGO, Rwanda -- Edward Ntagunjiri was one of the first to test the promise that he and his family would not be murdered if they came home to Rwanda.
On Friday, thousands of other Rwandan Hutus came home from eastern Zaire.
They had fled to Zaire two years ago, fearing the vengeance of Tutsis who had won control of their homeland. They had a reason to be afraid: Rwandan Hutus had massacred more than half a million Tutsis in Rwanda.
Like 64-year-old Ntagunjiri, the exiles had little choice. Civil war had broken out at their refugee camps in Zaire. The mountainsides to which they fled left them with nothing to eat or drink. Starvation and disease raced to kill them.
So finally, as foreign troops were being assembled to help them, the Hutu refugees headed home to the killing field they had left behind.
Ntagunjiri arrived here with two dozen others Wednesday, returning on a flatbed truck to a motley collection of houses and cultivated fields turned muddy and messy in a pelting rain.
In this community alone, about 10,000 Tutsis were slaughtered in the Hutu rampage. So Ntagunjiri had plenty of reason to fear what would happen to him and his Hutu family when they returned.
Instead, he got a joyous greeting as one person after another came forward with a smile, a handshake, a hug. Ntagunjiri did not have time to take the smile away from his face, even when he learned that in his absence his house had burned down.
It seemed hard to believe that he had ever wanted to leave such a welcoming community.
Ntagunjiri did not participate in the massacres in which people were murdered by their own neighbors, perhaps even by people whom they considered friends. When Ntagunjiri was asked why he left for Zaire, he averted his gaze, looking down, a pained expression on his face, finally saying, "Because of the war."
For some, the homecoming in Cyimbogo was a search among the faces for one or two that looked familiar and some quick news on the status of houses and land.
Buriro Niyonzima, 29, took three children, three sisters and his wife off the truck, then stood forlorn in the rain, looking for a way to get his family and their possessions to his house several miles away.
Almost 50,000 people lived in Cyimbogo in 1991 when the last census was taken in Africa's most densely populated country.
Now, Laurence Ndagijimana, the mayor for the past 18 months, estimates that the population is about half that.
About a quarter of the population was killed in genocide that took the lives of 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis. Another quarter, almost all Hutus, fled as a rebel army led by the minority Tutsi ethnic group, the traditional rulers of the majority Hutus, swept to power.
The Hutu refugees from Cyimbogo joined about a million of their compatriots in Zaire. They were only a few miles away. The hills of Zaire are clearly visible from their hometown.
When you ask Ndagijimana, a Tutsi, about what happened to this town two years ago, his eyes brim with tears, though he does not cry. Among the dead were his wife and three children, ages 4, 2 and 15 months, killed while taking refuge in a nearby Catholic church.
He now comes out when the trucks bearing the initials of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) pull up in front of the municipal offices, which are temporarily located in a house abandoned by a man who is thought to have participated in the genocide.
In the mayor's reception room, a poster shows a cartoon-like map of Rwanda surrounded by refugee camps, easily identified by the rows of tents covered with blue UNHCR tarpaulins, with people walking from them into Rwanda.
"Rwandans! Welcome home in peace. Let us rebuild a new Rwanda" the slogan proclaims in three languages.
As the Tutsi mayor greeted the Hutu returnees, he suspected that some of them participated in the genocide. "We have had three who were identified and arrested," he said. But he knows that far more than that fired the guns and swung the machetes that did the killing. "It was not one person who killed 10,000," Ndagijimana said.
For many of these people on the truck, the journey home began early last week.
Many were not even in the refugee camps that were spread up and down the west side of Lake Kivu between the Zairian cities of Bukavu and Goma.
Plenty of the Rwandans simply took refuge in Zairian villages, doing farm work for their food and lodging and a bit of money.
Eustus Hamisi was in a camp with about 25,000 others for the past two years.
When orders to move out came from the camp authorities -- usually members of the Interhamwe, the Hutu militiamen behind the Rwandan genocide -- Hamisi, his 12-year-old son, 22-year-old daughter and 6-month-old granddaughter took refuge with local Zairians.
Hamisi and his family were sitting on a plot of grass at the Nyagatare transit camp waiting for a truck to take them home.
This camp is the first stop for all the refugees who return over the small iron bridge that spans the Rusizi River between Rwanda and Zaire.
But Hamisi and his family had found another way across -- he paid a few dollars for a two-day passage in a dugout canoe across Lake Kivu, which included a one-night stopover on an island.
The story he told was identical to that heard through the Nyagatare transit camp:
"We left not because we had done anything wrong, but because everyone was leaving; we wanted to come home sooner but the Interhamwe wouldn't let us, telling people that they would be killed if they returned to Rwanda, threatening them with death if they tried."
"The Interhamwe kept telling us that next month they would lead us back into Rwanda," said Leopold Batsinda, 46, another temporary resident of Nyagatare transit camp. "Then when that month would come, they would tell us it would be the next month."
Though almost all were Hutus, many claimed that they fled in the first place because they feared the Interhamwe. Hamisi said he was afraid because he had hidden a Tutsi woman in his house. All decried the genocide of 1994 and denied having anything to do with it.
"I am so happy to be going home," Hamisi said, a big smile across his face.
Batsinda laid out the alternatives for the hundreds of thousands of Rwandan Hutus who did not start leaving Zaire until Friday. "Three things will kill those people: rebel soldiers, hunger and thirst."
Most returnees spend one night at the Nyagatare transit camp before trucks take them to their homes. But that was while the refugees were returning in relatively small numbers.
Now that the refugees are returning in such large numbers, camps like Nyagatare, with all its ancillary transportation and distribution networks, will serve only the sick. All others will be expected to find the way back to their home villages in Rwanda the same way they left, walking.
The sun was still shining when Hamisi loaded his family onto a truck for the short ride to his nearby home. But by the time another truck was ready to leave Nyagatare for Cyimbogo, the typical afternoon rainy season storm was pouring from thick, gray clouds.
A truck of the size that would probably not hold the possessions of an average American family was big enough for 48 returning refugees and all their belongings.
The paved road next to the transit camp turned potholed and treacherous before it reached Cyimbogo. But the homecomings smoothed everything over.
"I have so many friends," said Ntagunjiri late in the day.
"We will live together in peace once again," Ndagijimana said hopefully. "It will be possible once everyone comes home and finds their family and we all assist each other."
Pub Date: 11/17/96