John Bosco Gashumba climbed down from the twin-engine United Nations cargo plane, its hold crammed with ragged Rwandan children, and surveyed the scene around him. To the north, the stark cone of Nyiragongo Volcano loomed. To the east was the ridge marking the Rwandan border, and home.
For the 186 refugee children of Kigali's Red Cross orphanage, aged between 3 and 15, the return to Zaire's frontier last week marked the end of one ordeal, and possibly the beginning of another.
Having stuck with their charges through three years of war, famine, and epidemic, footsore from fleeing 380 miles in four months, Mr. Gashumba and his 10 staff members must now lead the children home to a potentially hostile Rwanda.
"This trip was useless," he said. "We walked [380 miles] and now we are back."
But in a region where humanity seems to have become devalued, their story of compassion and dedication also gives hope.
"A lot of us only survived because we had our monitors with us," one boy told journalists. "They sold their shoes so we could eat."
Nearly three years ago, the orphans joined the hundreds of thousands of Rwandan Hutus fleeing into Zaire to escape civil war in Rwanda. Fearing retribution by the new Tutsi leaders for the 1994 genocide of up to 800,000 ethnic Tutsis, they settled in camps in eastern Zaire.
Then last October, fighting caught up with them once again when mainly Tutsi Zairean rebels overran the refugee camps. More than 600,000 refugees, many of whom had been been held virtually hostage by Hutu perpetrators of the genocide, returned home to Rwanda at the end of last year. But others, including the orphans and members of the genocidal former Rwandan army and Hutu militias, took to the road again - this time heading north and west into the heart of Zaire.
Despite four months on the run living on what they could forage, the orphanage had lost only eight children when they came to a halt in Kindu in late February. Journalists and aid workers who reached Kindu after it was conquered by rebels remarked that many of the orphans were in better shape than refugee children who remained with their parents.
Felicien Kaite Kayigi, one of the orphanage staff, said his colleagues regard the children as their own. "We told them that if you have to die of hunger, then we die from hunger as well," he said.
The orphans were among the first Rwandan refugees to be repatriated by air last week, following the rebel capture of the Zairean government stronghold of Kisangani. Unable to gain access to the main concentration of approximately 100,000 refugees still hiding just beyond the rebel lines at Ubundu, the UN refugee agency has begun scouring the jungles of eastern Zaire for smaller groups and evacuating the most vulnerable in the twin-engine Buffalo.
More extensive repatriations are ruled out by the difficulty of the terrain and - many aid workers say - by the rebels' reluctance to allow large-scale operations to impede their ongoing advance. According to rebel leader Laurent-Desir Kabila, the refugees at Ubundu, trapped between the rebels and the unfordable Zaire River, include many armed soldiers of the former Rwandan government and Hutu militias.
Aid workers in Goma worry that a rebel assault on Ubundu, which Mr. Kabila has not ruled out, could result in massacres or panic many refugees into attempting to cross the river.
Although they are finally going home, the Red Cross children are returning to a potentially hostile political environment. Rwandan Tutsi authorities regard refugees who waited until now to return home with great suspicion. Although the orphanage says its charges include several Tutsi children whom it sheltered from the 1994 genocide, a Zairean rebel official who traveled with the flight told journalists the orphans would be interrogated after they crossed into Rwanda.