As more than 1 million refugees scatter into the hinterlands of Zaire and its neighbors to escape ethnic fighting, the world is grappling with how to ward off what diplomats call a humanitarian disaster.
One goal of the international community is to bring about a cease-fire between warring Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups and to secure supply routes to refugees.
An urgent situation has developed since Nov. 2 when relief agencies pulled out of eastern Zaire, leaving refugees largely cut off from food and water. Many are heading into inaccessible regions of this Central African nation.
Western officials and aid workers disagree over whether to use military means to reach refugees and prevent a potential tragedy. For relief workers, the greatest concern is that the breakdown of order is already so severe that there is no one to deal with.
"It's a new trend for us to face conflicts where you have no one to negotiate with," said Rolin Waver, Africa spokesman for the Geneva-based International Committee for the Red Cross. "Our people hated to pull out, but we had no choice. We were having to come to terms with anybody with a gun."
"It could already be a catastrophe. We've had no direct contact with the refugees since Nov. 2, but we know that they have not seen a fresh water truck since then. Only the politicians can do something now," he added.
United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has sent envoys to the region to encourage a cease-fire and try to win guarantees that the refugees will not be attacked. On Nov. 3, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata called for an international force to set up "emergency lifelines" to the refugees.
The prospects for an African solution seem remote. A senior diplomat said the proposal by US Secretary of State Warren Christopher to create a pan-African peacekeeping force have been ditched. "It's history. Forget it," the diplomat said.
Rwandan Foreign Minister Anastase Gasana said Nov. 5 that Rwanda would strongly oppose international military intervention into eastern Zaire. Meanwhile, Zaire, the other key player in the refugee drama, faces serious instability in its own government. Regional leaders met in Kenya Nov. 5 to discuss the crisis. Zaire, a key player in the refugee drama, refused to participate in the summit. Foreign Minister Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka told reporters in Nairobi that a parliament firmly opposed to conciliation with Rwanda prevented Zaire from sending a representative.
ZAIRE'S humiliating rout by the rebels in the country's easternmost provinces has brought rare unity among Zairean political groups, who are stoking up war rhetoric and blaming the West for conditions that led to the fighting.
Normally swiping at each other, the opposition umbrella Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) and the party of President Mobutu Sese Seko have turned their anger against the international community for allowing the Tutsi-Hutu ethnic problems of neighboring countries to spill into Zaire.
Leaders of both parties attacked the United Nations for allowing 1.1 million Rwandan Hutus, including soldiers and militias, to seek refuge in Zaire after the 1994 genocide against Tutsis and then doing little to ensure they left. The refugees were a destabilizing presence that contributed to the rise of Zaire's Banyamulenge rebels, they said.
"How could the US and UN allow this to happen?" asks Banza Mukalay, first vice president of Mobutu's Popular Movement of the Revolution.
Mukalay says more funds should go toward military spending to retaliate against Rwanda, which the government accuses of orchestrating the Banyamulenge victory. He was indifferent to a unilateral cease-fire called by the Tutsi rebels Nov. 4.
Similar jingoism was expressed by Edmond Ngoy-Moukendy, acting president of the UDPS.
"If the US and the West are not behind the enemy, then let them offer proof by helping us fight," he said. "The UN should help us kick out the invaders."
US State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns denied at a Nov. 5 briefing that the US had assisted the Rwandan military in its latest adventure. "The United States in no way, shape, or form encouraged or supported the Rwandan Army or the Rwandan government to attack Zairean forces.... We didn't give any recommendations to that effect. In fact, if we had been asked - and I'm sure we were not asked - we would have told the Rwandan government not to get involved militarily in the fighting. It hasn't been helpful."
The last time a crisis of this magnitude threatened the region, France intervened under a UN mandate to help refugees fleeing the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, after other UN partners failed to agree on a strategy.
But French officials say that any such unilateral intervention this time is out of the question. On Nov. 1, France called for an international force to intervene militarily in eastern Zaire to allow refugees and Zairean civilians to return to their camps and homes. In a statement, French Foreign Minister Herv de Charette specified that discussions over such a force should include the Organization for African Unity, Europe, the United States, and Canada.
"There will be terrible images of suffering on the nightly news this week, and we want to make sure that when people see those images they don't just say, 'What will France do?' Now, they will also say, 'What will the United States do?' " said a French official.
US officials say they are studying the French proposal, but meanwhile launched diplomatic initiatives of their own to step up talks with regional leaders and improve coordination with international relief agencies.
On Nov. 5, the European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid, Emma Bonino, called for establishing three aid corridors to ensure support to refugees. "The international community has a duty to make whoever is responsible for this military offensive understand that the well-being of a million refugees also depends on their actions, and that a new genocide will not be tolerated," she says.
The 15-nation European Union has been the major international donor to the region.
Spain supported the French calls for military intervention, but other European partners kept the proposal at arm's length. German diplomats called for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council on the issue, and said they were also urging Zaire to cooperate in a regional solution to the problem.
France's new conservative government is distancing itself from the policies of former Socialist President Francois Mitterrand, which included military support for the ethnic Hutus in Rwanda that planned the genocide.
"France destabilized Rwanda," wrote Patrice de Plunkett in an unusually blunt commentary in the conservative Le Figaro Magazine Nov. 3. "It became the enemy of the Tutsis, and even of the Hutus of the center and south. This absurdity would cost us dearly in military aid. It also cost our reputation: because these 'democratic' Hutu that we supported launched a genocide against the Tutsis in April 1994."