GIKONGORO, Rwanda — From the bed of a pickup truck in the red mud of an African hilltop, one enemy reached out to another Tuesday in a desperate overture to save what is left of a nation.
Here in a "safe zone" of Rwanda, protected by French marines, a delegation from the nation's new government stood before thousands of followers of the defeated old government. Their message: Don't flee. Don't create another refugee crisis for the world. Don't be afraid. Rebuild Rwanda.
About 1.2 million to 2 million fearful Rwandans have crowded into this southwest corner of their nation under a protective shield of French and U.N. forces. Most are Hutus and followers of the defeated Hutu regime. The new government and army are controlled by rival Tutsis.
Between these two peoples, a river of blood and vengeance has flowed for generations.
Two-thirds or more of the Rwandans in this region already are refugees who fled other parts of the country in the face of the victorious Tutsi forces. Tonight, and in the next few days, they face a collective decision that will determine their fate and that of their country.
Do they follow 1 million other refugees into permanent camps inside neighboring Zaire, to face disease and impoverishment, to let their deep ethnic hatreds burn for years? Or do they stay put when the French pull out of Rwanda next week and entrust their fate to U.N. peacekeepers and their old foes, the Tutsis?
"Stay where you are. Be calm and help us rebuild the country," said Seth Sendashonga, the new government's interior minister.
The crowd of 4,000 who had gathered at an athletic field overlooking this town for a historic glimpse at their vanquishers applauded politely. A crowd of 10,000 heard a similar speech later at a hilltop church 10 miles away near a refugee camp.
Rehabilitation Minister Jacques Bihozagara took his turn climbing into the back of the U.N. pickup and pleading with these Rwandans: "It's not worth being a refugee. I myself have been a refugee for a long time. . . . The conditions in the camps are terrible."
The Tutsis' appearances provided ordinary Rwandan Hutus here with their first glimpse of the men who have taken over their country.
Camp leaders had asked for the chance to hear firsthand what the new government has been saying to the rest of the world--that the horrible scars of Rwanda's ethnic turmoil should not prevent attempts at reconciliation.
The delegation of four government ministers from the new Rwandan Patriotic Front government arrived by helicopter under U.N. escort. For them, the stakes are almost as high as they are for the refugees.
The Hutus once made up 85% of the population of Rwanda, and without these people Rwanda might not be able to prosper. It might not remain a legitimate country. And without assimilation, Hutu refugees might mount a military counteroffensive to retake their property and keep Rwanda in civil war for years to come.
"Rwanda will still be a country without its population," Sendashonga said in an interview. "But there will be problems. Reviving the economy, for example. We don't think it will be easy without them. That's why we are asking them to come home."
The refugees themselves seemed to remain of a nervous, mixed mind as to what to do. Even as the officials spoke, perhaps 20,000 of them lined the 100-mile road to Zaire. An additional 10,000 or so had packed up and crowded the roadside here in this regional population center.
The rest stood their ground in fearful agony as tropical rainstorms swept the dusty landscape, the harbingers of Central Africa's coming wet season.
In the streets, and on the terraced hillsides where they live in shacks covered with branches, the refugees huddled. Their children were filthy, their few possessions threatened by marauding bands of bandits. Disease brewed, perhaps, in their next drink of water. And all the while, there was the relentless question: Flee or not?
"I've nowhere to go. I'll stay. We've been reassured by what we've heard," said Romein Kabera, an 18-year-old student.
But Cyprien Gakubka, 40, who called himself a former journalist, said the opposite: "We don't trust these new guys. There are no guarantees of our safety."
What the Hutus fear, of course, is retribution. Hutus were responsible for the massacre-by-machete of perhaps 500,000 Tutsis from April through June, one of the swiftest, most brutal genocides of modern times. Now they look every bit the meek and fearful. But the memories of this carnage burn with incredible ferocity in Rwanda.
Even as members of the Tutsi-dominated government urged the Hutus home, the house-by-house, village-by-village massacres of Tutsi families remained foremost on their minds. Sendashonga called on the guilty to confess and for others to accept "there are degrees of responsibility that each has, depending on his position in the social ladder."