What has suddenly materialized in Rwanda in the last few days is accurately described by President Clinton as "the worst human catastrophe in a generation." Not since the killing fields of Cambodia horrified the world has a politically induced nightmare of such proportions demanded immediate, massive and unstinting assistance from the international community.
After all the indecision and bickering over Haiti, Bosnia and Somalia, Americans will find common cause in rushing aid to the millions of Rwandans who are dying, again according to the president, at the rate of one a minute from starvation, dehydration and now a whirlwind plague of cholera. In the charnel scene near the Rwanda-Zaire border, where hundreds of dead line the roads, only an eruption of the active volcano at nearby Nyiragongo could compound the tragedy.
As is often the case in such emergencies, we hear rumbling that the U.S. was too slow in facing up to the situation. But this week's mass exodus of Hutus fearing reprisal from Tutsis, who in a matter of weeks have changed from victims to victors in a vicious civil war, came as a surprise even to aid organizations on the scene. Not even the French, whose military support of the deposed Hutu government remains suspect, anticipated the stampeding effect of radio broadcasts urging the Hutus to flee for their lives. The terrible result is that they are fleeing to their deaths in a bleak, overwhelmed border area of Zaire, itself a nation disintegrating.
As this latest U.S. humanitarian effort begins, it is evident that lessons have been learned from the unhappy outcome of the similarly well-motivated American effort in Somalia. This time, according to the administration, U.S. troops will operate from staging bases outside Rwanda rather than within the tribally riven country itself. This time, the U.S. should avoid any attempts at "nation building" which could, as in Somalia, inadvertently find us on one side of a conflict in which we have no strategic interest.
The U.S. intervention in Central Africa, which now bears a price tag in excess of $100 million, is forcing the administration to divert funds from the Sudan and other stricken areas. Just how the foreign aid program can cope with the breakdown of authority sweeping much of sub-Saharan Africa looms as a new and wrenching question for Washington. While emergency assistance efforts should remain international in composition and direction, President Clinton has rightly asserted that this country must take a leadership position.
This we are doing in Rwanda, where American aid now amounts to about a quarter of the entire operation. Many more lives, alas, will be lost. In retrospect, it would have been better had a relief network been set up earlier. But by putting the emphasis on trying to keep Rwandans in their own country, where their survival chances are much better than in Zaire, the U.S. at least has its judgment in line with its good intentions.