NAIROBI, Kenya — As an astonishing column of Rwandan refugees silently trudged home to an uncertain future in the land they fled in chaos and panic more than two years ago, the Clinton administration signaled Saturday that it was rethinking the size and scope of the role that U.S. troops would play in a proposed international mercy mission in the region.
Defense Secretary William J. Perry described the exodus of ethnic Hutus from refugee camps in Zaire--an estimated 120,000 crossed the border into Rwanda on Saturday--as a positive development that had given pause to planners in the United States and other Western nations poised to help stabilize the chaotic situation in the camps.
Speaking to reporters at a Pentagon briefing, Perry said no decisions had yet been made on whether to reduce the American role in the U.N.-authorized mission to help feed and protect the refugees, who were liberated from the camps after the apparent rout of Hutu extremists who had held them virtual captives.
On Friday, the U.N. Security Council authorized the dispatch of 10,000 to 12,000 soldiers to Central Africa on the humanitarian mission. The Clinton administration had been considering a U.S. contingent of as many as 5,000 troops for the four-month effort.
But with the situation on the ground changing by the hour, the Pentagon was clearly reluctant to commit a large force if it was no longer needed.
If the refugees continue to flow out of the camps, Perry said, "it will change substantially the nature of the humanitarian problem in the region. It will not eliminate the need for humanitarian support, but it will substantially change the nature of that need."
Saturday's astonishing exodus from Zaire to neighboring Rwanda brought the 30-hour total of returning refugees to more than 200,000 people, with hundreds of thousands more still tramping in eerie silence on the road behind them, according to a spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
The unexpected influx overwhelmed border guards and aid workers, who gave up all attempts to register or search the refugees for weapons as they quietly poured across the Rwandan border at Gisenyi. At one point, aid workers estimated that 12,000 people were crossing each hour.
"The road of death is now the road of hope," said Ray Wilkinson, a U.N. refugee agency spokesman in Gisenyi.
"The flow is unstoppable," Wilkinson said. "If we try to stop this, try to bring buses or trucks in, try to do the humanitarian thing, we'll probably make things worse. All we can do is go with the flow."
Perry said Saturday that a 40-member U.S. survey team was in Zaire trying to determine just how much of a U.S. presence would be required for the humanitarian mission.
"It is possible that our plan and the allies' plan . . . will be modified as a result of these developments," Perry said.
When President Clinton tentatively approved a U.S. role in the proposed humanitarian force last week, Republican lawmakers in Congress cautioned that the administration would have to avoid the kind of mistakes made in the humanitarian mission in Somalia. But in his weekly radio address Saturday, Clinton argued that the United States cannot disregard such overwhelming human tragedies.
"As the world's most powerful nation, we cannot turn our back when so many people, especially so many innocent children, are at mortal risk," Clinton said.
For its part, the Rwandan government said Saturday that the mass repatriation meant the rescue mission was no longer necessary, and it urged the United Nations to send aid to help resettle the returning refugees.
Food isn't a problem. The U.N. World Food Program has stockpiled enough food inside Rwanda to feed 700,000 people for 45 days, with additional supplies warehoused in nearby countries. Other aid groups have also laid in emergency provisions.
But many of the returning Hutus will find that ethnic Tutsis have occupied the homes, farms and villages they abandoned when they first fled Rwanda in mid-1994, fearing reprisals for that year's Hutu genocide of the country's Tutsi minority.
"The major issue by far is going to be housing," said Michele Quintaglie, a World Food Program spokeswoman. "If you have hundreds of thousands of people suddenly coming in and wanting their houses back from people already living there, you've got a real problem."
Other difficulties, however, were more immediate Saturday. Two U.N. transit camps set up to house, feed and assist the refugees near the border were quickly inundated, and frantic aid workers encouraged everyone to keep moving.
The vast column was 30 miles long, an unending sea of shuffling families, clanking wheelbarrows and overstuffed bundles, stretching from Sake in Zaire to the Nkamira transit center inside Rwanda. Despite the mass movement, aid workers described an eerie calm along the road.