EARLIER this month the United Nations' newest peacekeeping mission arrived in the central African nation of Rwanda to try to ease the effects of one of the world's most disruptive ethnic conflicts.
This country may be small, but its problem is huge: During the past four decades, ethnic fighting has killed tens of thousands and displaced an estimated 600,000. Now many of these people are trying to come home.
The revival of fierce ethnic fighting in neighboring Burundi, following last week's military coup, has compounded the problem, for in both countries the same two groups - the Tutsi and Hutu - are in conflict.
Rwandan officials are concerned that the reported ethnic slaughter going on in Burundi, might spill over to this country.
The UN team of 81 military and 17 civilian personnel, many from other African countries, arrived in mid-October to try to ensure that Uganda, accused by the Rwandan government of aiding a rebel army, does not allow men or arms to pass into this country. An estimated 800 UN troops, which were expected to start arriving in the capital of Kigali this week, have been assigned to oversee establishment of a transitional government that will include several ministers from the rebel side.
Rwanda was at war from 1990 until Aug. 4 of this year, when the rebels and the government signed a peace pact. Although the agreement is a hopeful sign, this country is working to ease a long history of ethnic strife. For generations the Tutsi group, now 14 percent of the population, ruled the country, treating the majority Hutu people as serfs.
With help from Belgian colonizers, the Hutu overthrew Tutsi domination in 1959 in a bloody war that left more than 10,000 people dead. That event inaugurated decades of anti-Tutsi discrimination, which caused some 600,000 Rwandese, the vast majority of them Tutsis, to flee the country. The rebel Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) primarily fought for the right of the refugees to return, and the peace pact grants them that right. It also establishes a joint interim government.
But the question now is whether these terms can be implemented. The RPF members slated to be part of the coalition government, and the 600 RPF soldiers who will be assigned to guard them, will not enter Kigali until UN troops arrive and French troops leave. Although Rwanda was colonized by Belgium, France has had close ties with the country and sent troops to Rwanda to protect foreign nationals and help defend the government when the war began in 1990.
THE presence of the foreign troops is a major source of contention between the two sides. There have been reports of the French fighting on the government's side, which France denies.
The UN is not the first international organization to try to bring peace here. An Organization of African Unity (OAU) team of less than 100 arrived in Rwanda earlier this year to help monitor a cease-fire in a demobilized zone (DMZ) in the north.
A member of the RPF said in an interview that the OAU is doing a good job. But a Rwandese military officer complained that the OAU team is top-heavy with officers who are not quick enough to investigate alleged cease-fire violations.
The towns and villages in the DMZ lack police forces and in many places local governments. Nevertheless, some 550,000 displaced Rwandese have returned to the DMZ, according to the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
``I prefer it here,'' says Martin Banaga, a farmer. Life in the camps for the displaced was ``unhappy,'' he says. But ``it's not going well. We have nothing at home. No seeds or tools. We lack clothes'' and food supplies.
International relief agencies, especially the ICRC, are delivering rations and trying to get seeds and tools distributed to farmers in the DMZ. But they have not been able to keep up with the rapid return of the people to the zones in the past few months.