Beyond Crisis in Zaire

Two years ago, months after the genocide of an estimated 1 million people in Rwanda, the International Committee of the Red Cross warned that if the major powers didn't put together a peace plan for the Great Lakes region of central Africa, ethnic slaughter could resume and spread to neighboring countries.

The Hutu-Tutsi conflict has indeed spread and is now taking place on Zairian soil. Zaire has accused Rwanda and Burundi of sending troops across the border to help the Banyamulenge Tutsi rebels, whose ancestors settled in what is now Zaire from Rwanda at the end of the 18th century. They are resisting a recent government order to return to Rwanda. Heavy fighting has been reported around the Zairian town of Goma, the main food base for the refugee camps.

Rwanda, which denies sending troops, has rejected a proposal for peace talks with Zaire, saying it isn't responsible for deteriorating conditions there. But Rwandan leaders admit retaliating against Zairian shelling of Rwandan border areas and say war with Zaire can't be ruled out.

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The situation in Zaire, as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says, is "extremely worrying, a potential time bomb," and Rwanda's refusal to talk makes it that much more explosive. In 1994, thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees died in overcrowded camps in eastern Zaire, and there is concern that something similar could happen again.

One immediate need is to manage the precarious state of affairs at the Mugunga camp in eastern Zaire. Because of refugees fleeing neighboring camps as conflict widened, Mugunga has turned into the largest refugee camp in the world. The American Refugee Committee (ARC), which normally provides health care for 175,000 refugees at Mugunga, estimates it is now providing for 400,000 men, women, and children, with more arriving every hour.

The ARC says food supplies for the Mugunga camp could last two to three weeks for the current number of refugees. It's possible, however, that an additional 300,000 people could arrive from camps north of Goma, drastically cutting into those supplies. A crisis of this nature might be forestalled if the UN were to open and maintain the supply route from Uganda, but that is difficult to do without ground forces.

The best hope for peace is bilateral negotiations between Zaire and Rwanda, called for by the EU and the UN Secretary-General. The US should put its full weight behind such talks, helping to persuade Zaire to end efforts to expel Tutsis whose roots there go back two centuries.

Repatriation of refugees to Rwanda is equally important. Some human rights workers say most refugees would be willing to return but have been constrained by Hutu guerrillas who have made the refugee camps their base. The recent repatriation of some 80,000 Rwandans from camps in Burundi reportedly was successful. The UNHCR should be helped to step up its campaign to encourage more Zaire-based refugees to go home too.

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