KIGALI, Rwanda -- For decades, the Western world's attention has been drawn to Africa by images of sick and starving people in places such as Biafra, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia where innocent victims are dying.
But the Zairian crisis is different.
The environment into which President Clinton proposes to inject U.S. forces involves not only Zaire, but also Rwanda and Burundi, where the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups live in murderous hatred of each other.
The people who will be served in Zaire are mostly Rwandan Hutu refugees. But many of them are Hutu fugitives who aroused and participated in the massacre of perhaps a million Rwandan Tutsis before running away to Zaire two years ago.
The world's primary organization for dealing with refugees -- the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees -- has been accused of helping to create the current crisis by not being more aggressive in repatriating the Rwandans in Zaire.
The Hutus in the forests scattered after Zairian Tutsis rebelled against the government of Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko. The Zairian Tutsis took control of the area that held about 1 million Rwandans in refugee camps.
It is feared that many refugees will die unless they can be reached with food and medicine.
But the leaders of the refugees are members of the Interhamwe, the civilian militia that was behind the massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. They fled with Hutus who swarmed into Zaire, fearing vengeance from the new Tutsi government in Rwanda that came to power after the massacre.
The Hutu refugees were encouraged by the new Rwandan government and international aid agencies to return to Rwanda. But the Interhamwe convinced those in the camps -- many of whom were certainly involved in the massacre -- that they faced certain death if they returned to Rwanda. They also turned the camps into a breeding ground for a military force designed to retake Rwanda.
U.S. officials are among many who charge that U.N. authorities did not do enough to break the Interhamwe's hold on the camps to convince the refugees it was safe to return. They argued that it was no longer necessary to spend $1 million a day to run the camps because the reason for the refugee exodus, the civil war in Rwanda, no longer exists.
But to U.N. authorities, the refugees became sacrosanct. If the refugees said they did not want to go home, they could not be forced to return -- even if they were staying because of threats and propaganda by Hutu war criminals effectively running the camps.
The cholera epidemic that killed 40,000 refugees when they arrived in Goma, Zaire, in 1994 received more attention than the massacre of 800,000 Tutsis a few weeks before. But world attention subsided with the passing of the epidemic.
It became widely known that the Interhamwe was essentially running the camps, meaning that the United Nations was housing and feeding war criminals. Also, the Interhamwe was conducting raids into Rwanda. But without those images of starving refugees, there was little international pressure to change the situation.
The camps became an entrenched part of the eastern Zaire landscape and of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees' budget. In its defense, the UNHCR claims it is not prepared to deal with the type of security problems presented by the Interhamwe and received no help from the international community when it asked for aid in handling the militia.
But others charged that the UNHCR did little, if anything, to confront the Interhamwe. Indeed, critics contend that in spending its time helping Hutus, the world's chief refugee organization came to sympathize with the Hutu complaint against being governed by the Tutsi-led government in Rwanda.
"UNHCR is an anti-Tutsi organization. Everyone knows that," said one aid worker who asked not to be identified.
"The fact that there was no great media attention is no excuse," said Antonella Notari, deputy head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Rwanda. "The people who were involved knew what was going on and should have done something."
The equation changed last month as the force rebelling against Mobutu -- Zairian Tutsis, probably aided by Rwanda's Tutsi government -- stormed across eastern Zaire, routing the demoralized Zairian army.
The refugees were again on the move, hiding from the fighting, but coincidentally hidden from those who would help them. Cut off from aid, the possibility of disease and starvation loomed. U.N. doctors warned Tuesday that cholera had broken out.
The images of pitiful refugees that attract attention to Africa were again expected to emerge from the forest of eastern Zaire.
The power of those images has been used as a tool of international diplomacy. France proposed an international force to get aid to the refugees. But France had close ties to the previous Rwandan government -- a Hutu one -- and the Mobutu regime in Zaire. That force would help stymie the Tutsi rebels and ensure that the opposition to the current Rwandan government survives.
Washington is approaching the situation reluctantly, eager to avoid military action in another confusing African situation.
U.S. officials say that what created the destabilizing situation in the first place was a million refugees in eastern Zaire and that any force that comes in must ensure that that situation is not duplicated in new locales. American diplomats in Rwanda clearly hope that out of the current chaos will come the obvious solution -- the return of the refugees to Rwanda, perhaps driven by hunger.
The power of those images of starving Africans is being used by various other players in this game.
Mobutu's government says that if any aid is going to the refugees, it must come through Zaire's capital, Kinshasa, as a show of respect to Zaire's sovereignty -- even though it would be much easier and quicker to reach the refugees through Rwanda.
The Rwandans are trying to control the flow of aid. The Tutsi rebels in Zaire are trying to insist that aid comes to the refugees through the areas they control as a way of establishing their standing in the eyes of the world.
In others words, if you want to help the refugees it almost becomes necessary to decide whose political vision your help is going to support.
Pub Date: 11/14/96