UNITED NATIONS — Hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees, unexpectedly liberated from the radical militia that had held them virtual captives in eastern Zaire, began returning to their native Rwanda on Friday as the U.N. Security Council authorized an international military rescue mission in the region.
U.N. officials and representatives of private humanitarian agencies described a mass, orderly migration of refugees along muddy roads eastward from the Zairian town of Goma toward the Rwandan border. Estimates of the number who actually crossed back into Rwanda ranged from 50,000 to 100,000. An additional 200,000 to 400,000 people were described as being en route.
"Hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees are voting with their feet. . . . They're going home," U.N. spokeswoman Sylvana Foa told reporters here.
Dave Toycen, an official with World Vision, an international relief agency, described the refugees in a telephone interview from Kigali, Rwanda, as calm and "in reasonably good health." He said they continued to move across the border through Friday night, despite heavy rains in the area.
Most were believed to be from the Mugunga refugee camp west of Goma, which a week ago was believed to hold 400,000 people. Officials and reporters who visited Mugunga on Friday described it as deserted but said that they also discovered "massacre sites" within the camp. Groups of as many as 20 bodies, some decapitated or with limbs hacked off, were found at the sites, according to reports from the scene.
The camp had been controlled by Hutu militias, which intimidated the refugees with threats, violence and assertions that they would be killed by the Rwandan government if they returned home. The militias' hold over the refugees apparently was shattered by a battlefield defeat Thursday by forces of the Banyamulenge, rival Tutsi fighters who have long lived in Zaire and bitterly oppose the Zairian government.
"The impasse has been broken," U.N. refugee agency spokesman Ray Wilkinson said in Goma.
Despite the euphoria at the U.N., officials cautioned that a majority of the estimated 1.2 million Hutu refugees who fled Rwanda in 1994 after a Tutsi-led coup remain unaccounted for. As many as 800,000 are believed to be wandering forests, mountains and plantations in eastern Zaire, in danger of death from hunger, thirst and disease.
"We still have a big problem. We don't even know where most of the refugees are, so there's still a need for the multinational force," said a diplomat from Canada, which is leading the expedition.
So the Security Council on Friday authorized the dispatch of 10,000 to 12,000 soldiers to Central Africa on a mercy mission to secure the delivery of aid to the refugees. The United States is expected to contribute as many as 5,000 troops to the four-month effort.
Robert Fowler, Canada's ambassador to the U.N., told reporters that the arrival of the troops will be determined by Lt. Gen. Maurice Baril, the Canadian commander, and his staff. But he added that he expects Baril to have his headquarters established in Africa within a week and that the bulk of the troops probably will follow shortly afterward.
At a Washington news conference Friday, President Clinton called the return of some refugees "a hopeful sign" but said the rescue mission needs to go forward.
"The mission Canada proposes to lead, and that I believe America should take part in, would provide security for civilian relief agencies to deliver the aid these people must have and help the refugees who so desire to return home to Rwanda," he said.
Preliminary plans call for the United States to provide an airlift, secure the Goma airport and hold open a corridor for refugees from Goma to Rwanda.
While the U.N. resolution permits the multinational force to use "all necessary means" to meet its humanitarian objectives, Baril has ruled out as too dangerous any efforts by the international troops to disarm the militias or attempt to separate them from refugees.
The militias remain active and presumably continue to control other blocks of refugees. The militias include former Rwandan soldiers and others responsible for the genocide of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda in 1994.
One of the obstacles to repatriation of the refugees was concerns of retaliation by Rwanda's government, which is dominated by the Tutsi-led military. In an apparent effort to counter that, Rwandan President Pasteur Bizimungu, a Hutu, went to the border crossing at Gisenyi to welcome returnees.
One woman who said she survived the massacre of most of her family at the Mugunga camp told the Associated Press that the attack was by Tutsi soldiers from Zaire and Rwanda.
"We knew they wanted to kill us, so we begged for mercy," she said. "But all they said was, 'You have killed so many of our people, why should we pardon you now?' "