SINCE March, tribal warfare in eastern Zaire has claimed the lives of several thousand people, many of them women and children, say United Nations, church, and relief officials.
The fighting, which is taking place just across the border from this small country, is between ethnic Rwandese and local tribes in Zaire's Kivu Province.
But some relief officials are questioning whether the violence is being encouraged by the government of President Mobuto Sese Seko, who may want to fan the flames of tribal warfare to reinforce his government's power.
Estimates of the number of people killed range from about 3,800 to 4,500. As many as 200,000 people may have been displaced by the fighting, says Trevor Page, a senior official with the UN's World Food Programme (WFP). This month, the WFP plans to start delivering emergency food rations to some 100,000 people in the conflict area, Mr. Page says.
Some church officials in Zaire and Western relief agencies, including the British Oxfam and the Dutch office of Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), are offering some assistance. But most of the roads are nearly impassable during the rainy seasons, and tensions in the area make relief work dangerous.
"We have reports of massacres of up to 600 [at a time] - a village wiped out and burned," says Henry Wijnroks, head of the Doctors Without Borders office here in Rwanda's capital.
An internal report by a Western relief agency says "hundreds of villages have been partially or totally destroyed." In one place, "we saw bodies - around 70-80 altogether - violently massacred in the school and in a building in front of the church - babies, pregnant women, children included. In some areas, local gendarmes [police] got involved in the conflict, looting, killing, and raping," the report says.
"Many believe that, even if there is plenty to fuel conflict at the local level, the violence is being actively encouraged by powerful elements based in Kinshasa [the capital of Zaire]," the report alleges.
"It seems Mobutu organized things to show that if he's not president, there will be anarchy, disorder," says an international relief official. A Rwandan relief official also suggests, "Mobutu is now trying to say: I'm the only one who can keep [Zaire] united."
If Mobutu is involved, he may be trying to create insecurity and undermine Etienne Tshisekedi, who was named prime minister in August last year by a national conference of some government and opposition leaders, the report says. Mobutu has since denounced him, naming his own prime minister.
Most Western governments have been urging Mobutu to allow Mr. Tshisekedi to govern, and have blocked most forms of direct aid to his administration.
Zaire, rich in mineral and agricultural resources, is one of the poorest nations in Africa in terms of what the average Zairean earns - about $170 a year in 1992. Most analysts blame Mobutu for draining huge sums of state funds for his own use. His wealth is thought to be around $5 billion.
But Mobutu has some defenders here. Mathieu Ngirumpatse, chairman of Rwanda's government party, the National Republican Movement for Democracy and Development, doubts Mobutu is involved. "A head of state needs peace to show he's strong," he said in an interview.
Other analysts here, according to the relief report, suggest that Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana may be fostering the conflict to weaken the ethnic Rwandans in Zaire, some of whom have supplied support to rebels in Rwanda's just-concluded three-year war.
But the report discounts such theories of Rwandan involvement as "not plausible." The Rwandan relief official says there is no evidence of "open assistance" in the conflict from President Mobutu.
According to Mr. Ngirumpatse and others interviewed about the massacres, the underlying cause of the conflict is resentment of the ethnic Rwandans by, primarily, the Bahunde and the Banyanga tribes of Zaire.
Some of the estimated 2 million ethnic Rwandese, known as Banyarwanda in Zaire, have roots there dating back to the 1800s; others came in the 1920s and later to work on Belgian plantations. Still others are illegal or economic emigrants or refugees from Rwanda's own ethnic conflicts over the past three decades.
The Banyarwanda worked hard, establishing businesses and acquiring large tracts of land. In some areas, they outnumber the local populations. Often they built up more wealth, and resentment against them grew.
"There's been jealousy for a long time," says the Rwandese relief official. Ten years ago, one group of ethnic Rwandese in Zaire, the Hutu, set up their own farm organization to protect their interests. They grew increasingly vocal about demands by Zairean Bahunde to pay local taxes to Bahunde chiefs for the use of land under the chief's control.
As Zaireans' calls for democracy grew along with opposition to President Mobutu in the past several years, the Banyarwanda began refusing to pay local taxes.
On March 20 of this year, the Banyanga and Bahunde attacked the Banyarwanda. The massacres spread, and the Banyarwanda, the main victims, began retaliating.
The Banyarwanda have themselves to blame, Ngirumpatse says. "Refugees," as he calls the ethnic Rwandans in Zaire, particularly the Tutsi Rwandans," want to live high ... and oppress their neighbors."
Ending the warfare will be difficult, Ngirumpatse says. President Mobutu has assigned extra security personnel, but most have stayed close to Goma, a Mobutu residence, or arrive well after the massacre, the relief report states.