CENTRAL Africa's tragedy may have slipped out of the headlines a bit since the height of last year's genocide in Rwanda, but it is far from played out. Last week saw a new turn in this tale of misery, as some 15,000 Rwandan refugees were marched off by Zairian authorities and forcibly returned to their own country. Perhaps Zaire's government has a legitimate point about becoming a repository for more than a million desperate people without having much say in the matter. But violating all international norms on the treatment of refugees is not the way to make it. Zaire agreed, after all, to host the camps. The resources needed to feed and care for the refugees from neighboring Rwanda and Burundi come from abroad. And Zaire gets an economic boost from the hard currency spent by the United Nations and various private aid groups. Returning the terrorized people to their homes is a fundamental goal. The difficulty of doing so was shown by the mass scattering to the hills that accompanied the Zairian expulsions. The refugees in Zaire are Hutus, most of whom are either afraid of retribution from Tutsi authorities in Rwanda or intimidated by militants in their midst who demand an armed return. Yet even Western diplomats say privately that a responsible forced repatriation may be the only solution. They call for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to cut a deal with Zaire to let Zairian troops into the camps to move the people out, with UNHCR announcing it will have shelter and supplies waiting in Rwanda when the refugees arrive. In order for such a scenario to be acceptable to world opinion, the United Nations and interested powers will have to ensure that elementary safeguards are set up: International observers should monitor the behavior of the Zairian troops in the camps. The refugees should be provided some sort of monitored escort to ensure their safety. The UN should have safe havens available to them on their return home where they would be allowed to resettle without harassment. That's a tall order and will require some fast negotiating with the governments of Rwanda, Zaire, and Tanzania, which houses another 800,000 refugees. But the status quo is quickly becoming untenable. The UN and other governments must act now to keep the situation under control and prevent further needless tragedy.