US Builds `Air Bridge' to Rwanda

Aid effort, relying on airlift capability, would be largest ever attempted by US military

THE military effort to aid Rwandan refugees will likely end up as the most complicated humanitarian operation in Pentagon history, according to US officials. Plans call for quick erection of an ``air bridge'' of cargo routes stretching from the United States to Germany and south to Rwanda and Zaire.

Within days the US supply infrastructure in Africa should cover almost the entire continent, from a staging base in Egypt down to the disaster area. The Defense Department says that currently some 4,000 US troops and 50 US aircraft are involved, but that number is certain to grow - especially if the people and resources back near the beginning of the air bridge are counted in.

``I can't tell you what the final requirement is, because very frankly we're just starting to nibble at the front end of the problem,'' said Lt. Gen. John Sheehan, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a briefing for reporters on July 26.

Operation Support Hope, as it has been dubbed, will dwarf the ongoing relief effort to aid Kurds in Iraq who have been persecuted by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The Somalia incursion used 20,000 US troops at its height, but it involved the logistically simpler task of protecting existing lines of relief.

Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, for all its lawlessness, had a basic port and airfield infrastructure. Goma, Zaire, now home to more than 1 million Rwandan refugees, has nothing but an airstrip barely able to accommodate military jets.

This restriction means it will be 25 to 30 days before the US operation can be in full swing. Yet relief groups are calling for all sorts of US aid - from food, to water and dehydration-treatment salts, to trucks for badly needed transport. ``Everyone has a solution,'' noted General Sheehan, ``but the problem is the end of the funnel that you're trying to push all these solutions through is extraordinarily narrow.''

US officials have considered the provision of water their top priority. Thus a C-5 carrying a civilian water-purification unit, plus two fire engines to help pump water out of polluted Lake Kivu for cleansing, flew non-stop from California to Zaire via three in-flight refuelings. This filtration system is only a beginning, however. It can provide fewer than 100,000 quarts per day of clean water, versus an estimated need of 5 million quarts per day.

Now the UN is asking the US to focus its energy on the immediate task of burying the dead, by bringing in mortuary teams, trucks, and bulldozers to dig graves in the area's hard volcanic rock. An estimated 16,000 refugees have perished since cholera was first detected in the camps a week ago, and their bodies are overwhelming relief workers.

US officials are counting on two developments to help them in what seems a daunting logistical task. The first is establishment of an overland truck route to the refugee area from Kenya and perhaps other East African ports. Once they start arriving, ships and trucks can carry many times more cargo than even the largest aircraft. Not everything has to come from the US - the Pentagon has a prepositioned stockpile at the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia that includes water-purification units, among other things.

The second help would be establishment of a forward logistics base in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. At this writing, it seems likely the new rebel-dominated Rwandan government will accept such a US presence.

A Kigali operation would allow the US to position smaller C-130 airlifters closer to the refugee camps, while rotating big C-5s and C-141s through Kigali's international airport. Supplies and equipment would also be trucked down roads toward the border with Zaire. US officials say they want to establish way stations of food and medical care along these roads that might lure refugees back into Rwanda and start them moving toward home.

The real solution to this refugee crisis, according to US officials, is to convince Hutus that the new Tutsi-dominated government will not harm them if they return. Both the US and refugee aid groups realize that in Zaire they must strike a balance between providing essential aid, and not making the camps so comfortable that refugees don't want to leave. ``The real magnet has to be for people to go back to Rwanda,'' Sheehan said.

With a refugee crisis of this magnitude it is perhaps inevitable that the US military would become involved. Decades of preparing to fight in corners of the world far distant from the US, such as Western Europe and Korea, has given the US a power projection and logistics capability far surpassing that of any other nation on the globe.

``Nobody can do this on the scale we can do it. We just have by far the most extensive airlift capability in the world,'' notes Loren Thompson, a senior defense expert at the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, a Washington think tank.

But relief officials have harshly criticized the US government in recent days for not moving faster to get involved in the Rwandan situation and perhaps head off the refugee flight in the first place. The US could have opposed a United Nations decision to withdraw most peacekeeping troops from the war-wracked nation last April, refugee officials say. It could have moved more quickly once the UN began calling for 5,500 new peacekeepers to restore Rwandan order.

``The US response to genocide in Rwanda was extremely disappointing,'' Alison Des Forges of Human Rights Watch-Africa told a Congressional panel July 26.

US officials reject this criticism, claiming they cannot be blamed for the UN's own disorganization and slowness. In the wake of the Somalia experience, there was little interest on the part of the American public or Congress for the US to leap into Rwanda, the officials add.

With some $250 million in US aid now committed to Rwanda, ``I don't think, frankly, that our response could have been more rapid,'' George Moose, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told Congress.

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