BUKAVU, Zaire — Thousands of Rwandan refugees packed their bags and headed out of Bukavu on Tuesday as tempers in the increasingly filthy and congested Zairian town became more and more frayed.
From early morning, there was a steady flow of Hutus out of the city center going toward Hongo, a new campsite opening up for 80,000 people on the wind-swept shores of Lake Kivu.
"People are clearing out of town incredibly fast," said Jane Pope of the CARE charity's Canadian branch. "They are vacating the sites and there's been a steady stream of people."
The start of a move from Bukavu came as a relief to the aid agencies, who have warned that the presence of 100,000 refugees in the city center risks triggering epidemics and increasingly violent confrontations.
Aid officials say Zairians are already beginning to catch the debilitating dysentery the refugees brought with them.
They say that once epidemics like measles start, there will be a far higher death rate among Zairians, who are vaccinated only occasionally, than Rwandans, who have benefited from a comprehensive vaccination program.
Life in this picturesque lakeside town has been transformed by the influx of tens of thousands of refugees who are convinced that the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front, which won the civil war, will crack down in the wake of France's weekend troop withdrawal from a "safe zone" in southwest Rwanda.
Hard-line supporters of Rwanda's ousted Hutu administration have been accused of the massacre of about 500,000 minority Tutsis after the April 6 death of Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana.
As the Bukavu squatters set out on foot, trucks provided by aid agencies took many refugees from the Rwandan side of the Rusizi River across the frontier toward Nyamanangwe, another new camp.
After initially closing its Bukavu border crossings Saturday on the grounds that it did not want a repeat of last month's Goma catastrophe, Zaire agreed under pressure from the aid agencies to open the lesser used of two bridges.
The aim was to force the refugees to bypass central Bukavu, crammed to the bursting point, and settle in the camps. No Hutus were being allowed to walk across the Rusizi 2 bridge south of town on Tuesday; instead, they were being carefully herded onto trucks heading directly to the camps.