The Associated Press
RUGARI, Zaire- The United Nations suspended efforts to repatriate Rwandan refugees Wednesday after Hutu extremists mobbed the first group to agree to be brought home: game scouts from the country's famed gorilla reserve.
One tracker was nearly killed in this village 27 miles north of the main refugee center of Goma. Others escaped into the bush and banana groves.
The group of 250 Hutus Ä some 25 trackers and their extended families Ä had been living for about a month at a nearby mountaintop Zairian gorilla station.
They trekked down the mountain before dawn to meet U.N. trucks that were to take them home to the Karisoke Research Center in northeastern Rwanda.
The center was once the base of Dian Fossey, the late U.S. naturalist whose book was made into the movie "Gorillas in the Mist." It is still funded by the Colorado-based Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and several of the trackers attacked Wednesday worked with Fossey, whose 1985 slaying remains unsolved.
"We got to the meeting point on time, but the trucks weren't even there," said Leonidas Munyantarama, 23, one of those hoping to return home. "But then a group of about 50 men came and started saying we were traitors, accomplices."
The attackers, also refugees from Rwanda's civil war, surrounded the trackers' leaders, hacking at them with machetes and pounding them with rocks, Munyantarama said.
The rest of the trackers scattered into surrounding banana groves as a U.N. jeep rescued one and was mobbed. The group's possessions were looted, Munyantarama said.
The United Nations suspended its repatriation program, which aims to persuade some 800,000 Rwandans in camps here to return home. Aid workers were advised to avoid the Rugari area.
It was the second U.N. attempt to truck refugees back to their country. The first failed last week when supporters of Rwanda's former government made veiled threats against 170 people who signed up for U.N. bus rides back.
About 130,000 refugees are estimated to have returned to Rwanda from the various camps around Goma but they have been going on foot. The United Nations is trying to get them out in large groups.
But many belong to the Hutu ethnic group and are afraid the victorious Tutsi-led rebels will retaliate for the massacre of up to 500,000 Tutsis during three months of fighting.
Hutu soldiers and supporters of Rwanda's former government, defeated in the war, regularly threaten refugees who want to return to their country.
Tracker Jean-Bosco Bizumurenyi, 25, was treated for serious head wounds but was reported out of danger at a Goma field hospital. Bizumurenyi visited Karisoke last week and returned to persuade his fellow trackers they had nothing to fear from the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the former rebels now in government.
He told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he was looking forward to forgetting the war and returning to work because "gorillas are much more peace-loving than men."
He and Munyantarama had pleaded with U.N. officials Tuesday to send the trucks a way up the mountain, to avoid militant Hutus.
The drivers got lost and didn't arrive on time. The returnees were easy prey as they waited by the road near other refugees' squalid huts.
"This is disgusting and unacceptable," said Ray Wilkinson, a U.N. spokesman in Goma. "Some people are trying to restart their lives and they are being stopped by threats of murder from their own people."
Expatriate researchers abandoned their gorilla research project after fighting started in April in Rwanda. But they have been hoping to reopen the center from which the trackers help them study the primates ranging a forest straddling Rwanda, Zaire and Uganda. Half of the world's remaining 600 mountain gorillas live in that park and the other half in one farther north in Uganda.
Wilkinson said Wednesday's attack reflected the growing security risk to unprotected aid workers. "Many field people think it is only a matter of time before they become the objects of violence," he said.
Self-policing in camps riddled with tension and intimidation obviously does not work, neither does policing by corrupt Zairian forces, who have been stealing and extorting money from refugees and aid groups alike.
Workers have called for U.N. peacekeepers, but no such force is being actively considered by the United Nations.
Munyantarama said Zairian police arrived late at Wednesday's incident, arrested four attackers and then beat up and jailed one of the trackers. Read Next Article