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French Troops Edgy as They Pull Out of Rwanda : Africa: Soldiers are uncertain whether another huge refugee exodus could follow their departure.

August 11, 1994|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GIKONGORO, Rwanda — French soldiers protecting an estimated 1.2 million panicky Rwandans continued their pullout from this tortured African country Wednesday, still uncertain whether another colossal refugee stampede is developing.

French commanders, who have already cut their force by about half, pressed ahead with their plan for a complete withdrawal from their security zone in southwestern Rwanda by Aug. 22, although there are broad appeals for their troops to remain.

A few hundred French troops now provide a shield that keeps a giant mass of Hutus from bolting across the border into Zaire. At worst, such a flight could rival the tragedy of Hutus who have already crossed the border farther north in one of the deadliest refugee movements in modern times.

"It is very difficult to predict the reaction of large crowds. And they are gathering in the camps here every day. The psychology of this can go very quickly," said French Marine Col. Erik de Stabenrath, commander of this zone.

If Hutus rush across the border to Bukavu, Zaire, in coming days, they face conditions hardly better than the disease and despair that greeted the 1 million or so Rwandan refugees who went into Goma, Zaire, last month.

"It cannot happen again--it simply cannot happen because it is too horrible to happen," pleaded Ray Wilkinson, spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

But if the Hutus stay put, their future may not be so bright either. Perhaps 1 million of the Hutus here already are refugees from other parts of the country, and what awaits them--sooner or later--is yet another bloody chapter in their death struggle for ethnic revenge, the French say.

The Hutus once were the overwhelming majority in this small, mountainous country. They lost a civil war last month to a Tutsi-controlled rebel army. The invading Tutsi themselves were primarily refugees who grew up in Uganda after an earlier round of Rwandan ethnic struggle.

But more than a backdrop to civil war, Rwanda in 1994 turned into a human slaughterhouse. Before losing and leaving, Hutus rampaged across the land and murdered eight of 10 Tutsi civilians, according to estimates here. "In one sector north of here, there were 13,400 Tutsi in April. Only 200 were left alive," said De Stabenrath.

For that very convincing reason, the Hutus fear being left unprotected against the vengeance that is the history of Rwanda.

"We can cope with disease--(but) the Tutsi soldiers will kill us for sure," said Venuste Hakizimana, 25, a Hutu teacher. "If the French leave, who will protect us? We are wondering: 'Can we stay? Or should we go?' I talk about this a great deal with my friends. We have decided if the French leave, we will leave."

Hakizimana says he set himself a Sunday deadline. After that, he said, he will begin the five-day march from Gikongoro over a steep mountain road to reach Zaire before the last of the French soldiers go home.

African troops of the United Nations already are moving into the region to try to maintain a shield for the Hutus. But neither African soldiers nor the United Nations is widely trusted here.

For the short run, De Stabenrath said he hopes that African troops can establish credibility with Rwandan Hutus quickly.

Already, one part of the French zone has been turned over to troops from Ghana. Soldiers from Chad arrived Wednesday. "And the mass exodus of refugees that was predicted did not materialize," the colonel said.

If the U.N. troops can maintain the Hutus' trust, the French will have breathing room to make their exit and not be blamed for another refugee exodus.

But even so, De Stabenrath said his dealings with the Rwandans leave him pessimistic about their future. "Hutus here are talking about revenge for the revenge they expect will be taken on them," he said.

"I talked to one Hutu man," he noted, "who was forced to bury his (Tutsi) wife alive. She was in the grave and he was shoveling dirt onto her and they were praying together. Things in this place are beyond comprehension."

The French are arranging talks between an appointed council of Hutu leaders and officials of the Tutsi-controlled Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).

The country's new leaders have said the Hutus are free to return and will not be subject to government persecution--except those who were guilty of massacres of helpless Tutsi civilians. Twice, so far, a Hutu council has met with the RPF at a site across the border from the French-controlled sector. As a result, De Stabenrath said he senses increased confidence on the part of the Hutus.

Now the French are negotiating to bring RPF officials into the French-occupied zone to meet, face to face, with the anxious Hutus here.

"I think that will do a lot of good for the population," De Stabenrath said.

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