WHEN more than 40,000 Rwandan corpses washed down the Kagera River into Lake Victoria last month, forcing the Uganda government to declare a health emergency in three districts, it was a grim manifestation of a decades-long tide of humanity that has ebbed and flowed between the two countries.
The horror of the Rwandan conflict, which in only a few weeks has resulted in the deaths of an estimated 500,000 people, cannot properly be understood without understanding that country's ties to Uganda.
In the 1940s laborers from Rwanda, primarily Tutsis, worked for prosperous Ugandan landowners. For years poverty was their lot. The break came in the 1970s under Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, when many refugees, through intermarriages and other means, left the overcrowded camps and joined mainstream Ugandan society. Many served in Mr. Amin's notorious secret police, the State Research Bureau.
Taking advantage of subsidized higher education in Uganda and United Nations scholarships, scores of Rwandans also acquired the necessary skills to join the propertied classes of Uganda. The relative prosperity of what Ugandans regarded as their former ``laborers''' did not go down well with many people. In parts of Uganda, it is an insult to be referred to as a munyarwanda.
Capitalizing on this animosity, politicians used the Rwandans as scapegoats for the ills that plagued Ugandan society after the bloody years of Amin's rule and the chaos that followed it. The question of the Rwandan refugees has occupied a central role in Uganda's politics. Most recently, it flared up during elections for a constituent assembly held at the end of March.
In 1982, President Milton Obote and his Uganda People's Congress (UPC), wishing to win over the population in southwestern Uganda, where there is an acute land shortage, evicted more than 40,000 refugees and chased them back to Rwanda. Their cattle and land were seized by locals and party functionaries.
The Rwandan government of Maj. Gen. Juvenal Habyarimana responded by chasing the refugees back to Uganda, killing many in the process. Forced to decide between the lesser of two evils, the desperate refugees returned to Uganda.
Under the circumstances, several Rwandan refugees joined the National Resistance Movement/Army (NRM/A) led by Yoweri Museveni, then battling the UPC regime. By the time Mr. Museveni's ragtag forces rolled into the Ugandan capital, Kampala, in January 1986, several Rwandan refugees had risen to prominent positions in his army.
Most notable were Maj. Gen. Fred Rwigyema, one-time Ugandan deputy army commander and the first leader of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), Major Baingaina, who was then a senior commander in the eastern brigade, both of who were killed early in the invasion in October 1990, and Maj. Gen. Paul Kagame, the chairman of the RPF High Command, who was then head of Uganda's military intelligence.
By October 1990 more than 3,000 Rwandan refugees, who formed the core of the RPF, were serving in Uganda's National Resistance Army (NRA). These were later joined by thousands more from refugee camps in Tanzania and Zaire. Estimates now put the rebel forces at more than 20,000.
This posed a problem for Ugandan President Museveni. He was hard put to allay accusations from his opponents that Uganda was being ruled by Rwanda, while at the same time he did not want to appear to abandon his friends after all the help they gave him.
Critics of the NRM/A see a section of the new draft constitution that provides for the naturalization of refugees as an attempt to reward the Rwandan refugees. In 1989 Uganda's parliament, the National Resistance Council, passed an antisectarian bill that sought to curb ethnic and religious segregation.
Attempts by the Rwandan refugees to set up a front in the 1970s failed. But in 1988, a well-attended convention of Rwandans from the diaspora, including France, Belgium, and the United States, was held in Kampala.
Because of this stirring, in 1989 Museveni warned President Habyarimana to reach a settlement with his exiled people. Habyarimana's response was curt. He declared that Rwanda would not accept the return of the exiles (estimated at 1 million to 2 million) because it was too small and overpopulated. (Rwanda, with 8.5 million people and a land area of 26,000 square kilometers, is one of Africa's most densely populated countries).
Following that, the exiles, who were then demanding the right to visit or carry Rwandan passports, decided on force of arms as the only way they could go home. Their participation in the five-year war that saw Museveni shoot his way to power had taught them that a well-organized guerrilla force could overthrow an established government. They took the plunge on Oct. 1, 1990.
Most Ugandans saw the invasion as a solution to a long-running problem. At a press conference soon after, Museveni, reacting to accusations from neighboring countries that he was behind the invasion, said, ``Uganda will not be a prison for those who want to go back to their country.'' He was echoing the public mood.
The invasion itself was long in the making. Rebels set up businesses in Uganda to help foot the war bills. Rwandan professionals both in Uganda and abroad were required to make financial contributions to the war effort.
The human waves between Uganda and Rwanda have not been one-sided, as the bodies in Lake Victoria would suggest. Two months before the recent massacres broke out, the RPF had started moving refugees from camps in Uganda into areas of Rwanda that they controlled.
Whatever the reasons, many Ugandans would wish to see the RPF rebels succeed and see the last of the ``Rwanda problem.'' But as the winding Kagera River that links the two countries has shown, for Uganda, the Rwanda problem is never too far away. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.