Rwanda's Refugee Crisis Is Unique

The UN and the donor community need a regional plan to reverse the cycle of genocide

The recent murder of three Swiss Red Cross officials in Burundi should remind policymakers that this obscure little war is actually vicious enough to spill over and destabilize the region. But they should also be aware that there is a larger threat lurking in the camps for Rwandan refugees.

These camps could trigger a repeat of the 1994 massacre in Rwanda unless the international community helps the country and its neighbors deal with the scars of genocide.

This is probably the most urgent challenge facing the aid community, but you would hardly know it from listening to the United Nations and major donors. Rarely, in 20 years of covering the UN, have I seen so much desperation and so few ideas.

Over 2 million Hutu refugees fled Rwanda to neighboring countries in 1994, and 1.7 million are still there, despite extraordinary efforts to send them home. Social programs and schools in the camps have been cut. The refugees have been forbidden to work locally. Last August, the Zaireans even tried mass expulsion. All to no avail. The refugees won't budge. Only 27,000 have gone home so far this year.

Everyone agrees that this stalemate cannot continue. The camps are poisoning the entire region. They have enabled the Hutu extremists to collect their strength, filter arms to guerrillas in Burundi, and plant land mines in western Rwanda. Inside Zaire, the Rwandan Hutus have pushed up into Masisi, expelling local inhabitants and threatening one of the region's foodbaskets.

After spending $1.4 billion on the Rwandan emergency, with no end in sight, donors are in no mood to spend more. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has appealed for $288 million for 1996. As of June 13, it had received just $61.3 million.

The refugees won't go home, but they can't remain in the camps; rarely has the UNHCR faced a situation with so many dangerous consequences.

The problem begins with a profound misunderstanding. Donors insist on treating this like any other refugee movement. It is not. Normally it is the victims who flee; in this case the exodus was led by those who directed the Rwandan massacre in 1994. Although some of the more prominent have left the region, thousands of these so-called genocidaires are still living off international aid.

This creates a vicious circle. In the first place, it makes any Rwandan male refugee inherently suspect to the authorities in Rwanda. Out of 569 family heads who returned home in March, 105 were arrested and thrown into overcrowded jails on vague charges of "genocide." More than 68,000 people are now detained in Rwanda, and their mood is giving way to desperation. Eighty-six were reported killed during an attempted jailbreak in northwest Rwanda in April.

It is hardly surprising that the refugees are not returning. They will certainly not be welcomed in Rwanda until the killers in the camps are called to account. For two years the international community has tried to dodge this central fact. Left to deal with the problem, UNHCR and the Zaireans have taken 41 "intimidators" out of the camps. But few of them had any standing in the camps, and no attempt has been made to determine whether they were genocidaires, political leaders, or just plain folks who thought it was unsafe to return to Rwanda. To my knowledge, they have not been charged with a crime. As well as being legally questionable, this muddled policy has had no impact on repatriation.

The United States and others are reportedly urging UNHCR to "screen out" genocidaires in the camps. But how would they be identified? How would they be taken out of the camps without provoking violence? Where would they be taken - to Zairean jails or settlements? Would the US build new homes for these killers? Certainly, there is little point in resettling war criminals in the interior of Zaire or Tanzania if that merely reaffirms their impunity and shifts the threat they pose to regional security.

Screening genocidaires in the camps will only succeed if it is part of a regionwide plan to deal with genocide. The precise shape of such a plan needs to be discussed, and this may require some juggling of priorities by nongovernmental organizations, which have been largely preoccupied by emergency relief aid. But for the moment what matters is better understanding: We simply have to see this "refugee crisis" in its true light.

The Rwandan government has certainly played its part by drafting a conciliatory new law that proposes modest penalties for all but the instigators of the genocide. This could reassure many of those in the camps. But it could still be vetoed by embittered survivors of the genocide when it comes before the Rwandan Assembly - unless, that is, the international community does its part as well.

One important piece is already in place. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha has a mandate to work internationally. In addition to mounting its own trials, it should also send investigators into the camps to explain its mandate and start a dialogue with the refugees.

Based on a recent trip, I am convinced that many will be reassured by the fact that the tribunal cannot demand the death penalty. Many might also welcome the chance to clear their name.

First, however, the tribunal has to pick up the pace. The deputy prosecutor has indicted only 11 individuals. He will find it hard to expand this, and to win convictions, as long as he is working with just 28 investigators.

While the tribunal is gearing up for trials, an authoritative international investigation could help to better define the problem. One possible model could be the Truth Commission, which contributed to the 1990 peace process for El Salvador by naming more than 100 human rights violators, including Salvadoran armed forces and FMLN guerrillas. This opened the way to a purge of the armed forces.

In Rwanda, it is critically important that aid donors offer some international support for the survivors of genocide, perhaps through a compensation fund. They must also offer more money and better coordination for justice reforms. Thus far they have pledged only $28 million, and one-third of this has gone into prisons.

The international community has left itself a narrow window of opportunity, which is fast closing. To be truly effective, any initiative on genocide will require a wholehearted political commitment from the UN Security Council.

Such commitment would be unprecedented, but then this is an unprecedented refugee crisis, as was the massacre that caused it, and as will be the next round of killing if we fail to act.

*Iain Guest, a senior fellow at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, recently visited Rwanda.

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