Hard Road HOME Refugees: The children coming back from Zaire to Rwanda aren't pathetic waifs, but testimony to what unites the human family.


A MIDST THE nearly silent mass of refugees, walking with their calm determination, it was the children you noticed first. Perhaps the majority of the returning Rwandans were youngsters as the growth rate in the refugee camps over the last two years has been around 3 percent, perhaps a little higher than it was before these people entered the camps. Families with six, seven children are common.

Few of these children knew their lives were considered ones of deprivation, that their very existence as refugees had been part of a clarion call for international aid. These were the "innocent" children who were too young to have had anything to do with the genocide and rebellion that left Rwanda in tatters two years ago, the ones that the international aid community had come to rescue.

But they turned out not to be the sad-eyed waifs of refugee posters. Oh, [See Children, 6f] they looked tired as you would expect from anyone who had spent the day marching. Under 2 years old and you stayed tied to your mother's back, jostling along with the crowd. Over that age and you most probably walked. And if you were old enough to walk, you were usually old enough to carry something on your head. So they were tired.

But catch the eye of one of the children and give a smile and inevitably a bright, wide grin would break out across that small face, a child like any other, not asking to be pitied, just pleased to be noticed.

On the second day of the refugee flood at the Rwandan border, there was a tiny baby tied to the back of her 11-year-old sister. She was 5 days old, born in the Mugunga refugee camp, the last gathering spot for these Hutu refugees as they fled other camps and crowded onto the volcanic rock. Two days later the family - mother, father and five other children - started walking to Rwanda.

No doctor had ever seen mother or child. The baby's name was Bazayizaenga, which means Daughter of God.

Just down the road, as darkness started to fall, a piece of hard candy was offered to a child. She smiled in gratitude, then put it into her mouth. A minute later, she took it out again and offered it to one of her siblings. The half-dozen children gathered around the impromptu camp each got a turn.

As with children everywhere, those in the march of refugees were the hope for the future, the ones who might grow up in a new Rwanda, freed from the bonds of ethnic hatred that has shackled the land for so much of its history.

But they were also potentially its curse. Rwanda is already the most densely populated country in Africa. The high birth rate in the refugee camps would only add to that density. These babies would need food; when adults they would want land. With the country's steep hillsides already terraced to the summits, it is not clear that there is any more land, a problem that is often at the root of conflicts, ethnic or otherwise.

Still, when a child walking in the line of refugees caught your eye and smiled in delight, it was hard to worry about such abstractions.

It was a reminder that though, this was supposed to be a sad story of starving refugees, it didn't turn out that way.

Despite the history of bloodshed and genocide, despite the evident poverty and undeniable want, the return of the Rwandan refugees turned into a life-affirming story, a tale of determination, a reminder that these Africans are not just needy stick figures with empty tin cups begging for our help, but resourceful people who know much better than we do how to survive on the harsh continent of their birth.

When these half-million people walked back to their native land, their feet gave testimony to their basic intelligence and made fools of all those who thought that without the help of international aid groups these Africans would just sit down and starve.

The bright smile of a child looking out from under the bundle on her head leaped across the barriers that divide race and class, the First World from the Third, the Hutus from the Tutsis, the white aid workers from their black clientele, and spoke eloquently about the bonds that unite the human family.

Michael Hill is The Sun's correspondent in South Africa.

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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