WHEN French troops entered Rwanda last weekend on behalf of civilians caught between government and rebel forces, they carried a heavy load of political baggage along with their usual kits.
In 1990, France sent arms and military advisers to shore up the mainly Hutu government in the face of attacks by rebels, largely members of the minority Tutsi tribe. Rwanda's military, in turn, trained Hutu civilian militia units, which ostensibly were set up to counter rebel infiltrators; these militia units are now seen as responsible for much of the genocidal carnage that followed the death of Rwanda's president. He and the president of Burundi were killed on April 6 in an apparent rocket attack on a plane carrying both men.
The death toll in the mayhem that followed has been estimated at 200,000 to 500,000, most of them Tutsis. It comes as little surprise that the rebel Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) has viewed the French action as hostile and that some human rights groups are keeping a close watch on the situation.
Gradually, however, the French are trying to shed that baggage, with some success. As they moved into Rwanda this week, French troops started to disarm Hutu militia checkpoints, which often became killing points for Tutsi refugees trying to flee the country. In addition, the French have secured a refugee camp filled with 8,000 Tutsis. Simultaneously, the RPF's response has shifted -
if only slightly - from accusing the French of mounting an invasion and of trying to shore up government forces to acknowledging the humanitarian mandate under which the French are operating.
All sides must keep that mandate clearly in view. But the onus is on the French, especially given the expectations of the warring parties. The rebels are waiting to capitalize on any sign of French support for government forces. And some Army commanders openly hope to gain a strategic advantage from the French presence.
Whatever the misgivings about ``Operation Turquoise,'' the French to date deserve credit for filling an international leadership vacuum in Rwanda. Still, it took nearly three months for the global community to respond in any substantive way to a crisis that in a short period of time wiped out the equivalent of a mid-sized United States city.
Rwanda today stands as a tragic lesson on the limits of crisis management by international consensus.