Amid scenes of tearful relief and joyful reunion, the first planeloads of European refugees returned yesterday to a crowded Brussels airport with gruesome details of their week-long ordeal at the hands of the rebels in southern Zaire.

"Have you seen him, have you seen him, can you swear he's safe?," begged a red-eyed Belgian woman of one of the first refugees struggling through the thousand-strong crowd crammed into the airport's small arrival area. "Yes, I saw him at Kamina." A hurried embrace, an endless string of "thank you's."

The incident mirrored a hundred others, symbolizing the tense mood of Belgium yesterday.

Freddy Wauters, 39, a Belgian mining engineer who was among the 560 refugees to arrive here in three Belgian Airways jets, told of an 8-month pregnant European woman "who was opened up by knife" by rebels.

A distraught Belgian nurse, said, "There were bodies everywhere."

The picture emerging from refugees' accounts is one of the admiration for the rescue effort by French and Belgian paratroops, scorn for the Zairian army's failure to resist the rebels and resentment of the West's delay in triggering the military operation. Many refugees predicted that the rebels will be back as soon as the European troops pull out.

"We are astounded to hear of the criticism being made on French's television against the decision to drop thr paras," said Pierre Tramoni, 28, a French mineworker. All refugees interviewed indicated that the vast majority of the killings too place by Wednesday, before Friday's paratroop drop.

"If they had come in earlier, half of the victims could have been saved," complained Francois Postorino, 59, an Italian-born official of Gecamine, the leading Kolwezi-based mining company.

Wauters added that the rebels had already destroyed half of Kolwezi and "when the paras go away, they will destroy the rest."

Few talk of an early return to Zaire.