JOHANNESBURG — The Great Lakes region of central Africa threatens to become the scene of a humanitarian catastrophe as concerns grow that a long-dreaded regional Hutu-Tutsi conflict may finally happen.
The latest power struggle between the two ethnic groups has sent half-a-million Hutu refugees on the move along Zaire's eastern border and increased prospects for the disintegration of the Zairean state.
The anarchic country, rent by secessionist strains over the years, has been largely kept together for 30 years by the singular force of President Mobutu Sese Seko. But central authority has eroded over the past few years, and the dictator's two-month absence as he undergoes medical treatment in Switzerland has limited his ability to quell the Tutsi uprising.
FIGHTING erupted three weeks ago after the Zairean regional administrator in the border town of Uvira told the Banyamulenge, a group of local Tutsis, to leave Zaire within a week. Since then, they have battled Zairean soldiers, reportedly taken Uvira, besieged Bukavu, and are fighting just 30 miles outside Goma. These three cities are the site of major camps for Hutu refugees and have been used as training centers for Hutu fighters who have fled their own countries.
The fighting has created the worst potential crisis since April 1,1994, when more than 1 million Hutus, including armed militias, poured across the border into Zaire, fearing reprisals after Rwanda's genocide of more than half-a-million Tutsis.
The Tutsi-led Rwandan and Burundian governments deny Zairean claims that they are helping the Banyamulenge with cross-border incursions. But attacks on the Bukavu-Uvira area by the Tutsi rebels from the south and from the Burundi-Rwanda border to the east seem to indicate a coordinated drive by Tutsi-led governments in the region to do what the United Nations failed to do for three years: expel the Hutus from the camps. Now the refugees, Hutu militiamen among them, may be driven deeper into Zaire.
An estimated 70,000 of the refugees are from Burundi, where 150,000 people have died and 100,000 fled since the country's first Hutu president was assassinated in 1993.
These ethnic Tutsis are estimated to number around 300,000, a tiny fraction of Zaire's 37 million people. They initially migrated from Rwanda about 200 years ago to the South Kivu area of Zaire. They have been denied Zairean citizenship due to tensions with other ethnic groups in the area. The arrival of Burundian and Rwandan Hutus over the past three years and the administrator's edict exacerbated the Banyamulenge fear that Zaireans wish to dislodge them from their homes.
The Tutsi rebels emerged after the Banyamulenge were ordered to leave the area. No one knows exactly how many fighters they have, although a commonly cited estimate is 2,000. They claim they are fighting in self-defense but appear to have the strategic support of the Tutsi-led governments in Rwanda and Burundi.
Burundian and Rwandan Hutus
The Hutus who fled across the Rwandan border into Zaire in 1994 fear reprisals if they go back. The Banyamulenge accuse the Hutu refugees of joining forces with other groups to attack them.
Uvira, which lies across Lake Tanganyika from Burundi's capital, Bujumbura, was until now a major base for Hutu militants. Hutus have been especially marginalized in Burundi following that country's coup in July that brought Tutsi Maj. Pierre Buyoya to power.
Burundian and Rwandan governments
Both countries have Tutsi-led armies and governments. Both nations, former Belgian colonies, have identical ethnic makeups: 14 percent Tutsis, 85 percent Hutus, and 1 percent Twa Pygmies.
Nationwide, it numbers 25,000. The force is notoriously underpaid, corrupt, and undisciplined. Stealing and bribe-taking is rife. Many have looted vehicles and warehouses of aid workers in the area.
THE uncertainty is not helped by President Mobutu's absence. No obvious No. 2 or heir apparent has emerged. The power vacuum may stoke existing secessionist sentiment in the south of the country. Tutsi rebel spokesman Muller Ruhimbika said Oct. 25 that he had the support of opposition leaders in the Zairean provinces of Shaba and Kasai, which are virtually autonomous anyway.
So far, only a few Hutus have returned to Rwanda to face the Tutsi government. A mass return is unlikely.
Aid workers say half-a-million people on the march without food or assistance could create a humanitarian crisis far worse than in 1994. The UN, has evacuated more than 100 staff from the scene of the fighting and cannot reach most of the affected people. Concerns are growing that the conflict could spill over to Uganda and Tanzania, which also have been hosts to refugees.
Proposals to create separate Hutu and Tutsi homelands appear infeasible. It is unlikely the minority Tutsi governments in either Burundi or Rwanda would relinquish large tracts of territory to Hutus.
WHAT IS BEING DONE
VERY little. Humanitarian organizations are restricted by the possibility of assault and many have evacuated staff from endangered refugee camps. In addition, sanctions against Burundi's government make it even more difficult to get supplies in.
United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher's proposal for a 10,000-strong pan-African peacekeeping force has so far not taken off. The idea has been met with coolness by African leaders, particularly the most important one - South African President Nelson Mandela. Earlier this year, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) discussed setting up a rapid intervention force for such crisises but shelved the idea.
Belgium has initiated a bid to broker meetings between Zairean Prime Minister Kengo wa Dondo and Rwandan leaders.
The UN Secretary General and the OAU support the idea of a regional conference on the Great Lakes.
France has urged the European Union to send more humanitarian aid to the region.