Help Rwandans Resettle in Homeland? US Withdraws Troop Offer as Africa Crisis Shifts

The United States has tentatively rescinded its promise to send ground troops to eastern Zaire, planning instead to airlift humanitarian aid supplies to half a million Rwandan refugees as they try to settle back into their homes.

But while Western countries debate sending military forces to help the returnees, the Rwandan government remains cool to their offer. Officials in Kigali have repeatedly said there is no need for the proposed Canadian-led 10,000-strong force after the return of an estimated half a million refugees from Zaire since Nov. 15.

"The Rwandan government considers that such a force is no longer necessary because the conditions under which it would have deployed no longer exist," Foreign Minister Anastase Gasana says.

Rwanda's minority Tutsi-led government is obsessed with security and its sovereignty, a defensiveness that reminds many diplomats of Israel.

The government has been on its guard since 1994, when it drove out the previous Hutu-led regime and militias that orchestrated the genocide of at least half a million Tutsis. The militias and former soldiers escaped along with hundreds of thousands of refugees, whom they held as virtual hostages in camps in Zaire that they used to stage cross-border raids. Attacks by Rwandan-backed Zairean rebels finally drove them out.

Even with the Hutu militias hiding the hills and the refugees coming back, the Rwandan government wants to be sure it is in control of its own destiny. Irritated by the inability of the United Nations to repatriate the refugees and remove the threat on its borders for 2-1/2 years, Kigali feels the gesture has come too late.

The UN, aid groups, and Canada insist that despite the voluntary return of the refugees there is still a great need for the international force, albeit with a different mandate. According to the UN, 500,000 Rwandan refugees remain in Zaire, cut off from supplies - although Mr. Gasana claimed only "a few stragglers" remain. The UN said the force is still needed to secure foreign aid agencies' access to the remaining refugees.

Canada has staked its international prestige on the force, whose initial task was to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe while the camps were starved out by fighting and safely shepherd the refugees back home. A UN special envoy, Canadian Ambassador to the US Raymond Chrtien, has been jetting among the region's capitals trying to sell the idea to ambivalent Zairean, Burundian, and Rwandan governments.

Western nations looking to bow out

With the immediate humanitarian crisis more or less resolved, nations such as the US, tired of funding costly peacekeeping missions abroad, are looking for ways to pull out gracefully.

Diplomats say the US was relieved to find an excuse to avoid sending troops on a mission that it had opposed when it was first discussed.

In the planned operation, US troops were to secure the area surrounding the Zairean border city of Goma for aid to refugees in the surrounding camps. But the weekend exodus has made Kigali a more likely base for aid operations than Goma. Countries participating in the force have said they may try to avoid deploying any troops on Zairean soil.

One senior Western military source in the region says he suspects that a radically scaled-down force might be approved at a meeting in Stuttgart, Germany, later this week. Its new mandate would be simply to assist in getting food, tents, and other relief aid to areas overwhelmed by the mass resettlement.

"The situation is fluid," he says. "I think a lot of people don't want to lose face and drop the idea completely."

If some form of force is deployed, it will not be able to address two major issues central to the end of ethnic cleansing in Rwanda - a peaceful reintegration of the refugees and a justice system that would fairly try perpetrators of the genocide.

Western diplomats say they take on good faith the Rwandan government's official statements that it wants the refugees back and will do its best to help them reintegrate.

Even considering the fact that this tiny Central African country is one of the world's most densely populated, some aid workers believe enough land and houses can be found for the refugees.

Hundreds of thousands of Tutsis returned from Uganda in 1994 to occupy homes of the Hutus who had fled to Zaire. But the killing of up to 1 million people made other houses available, the aid workers say. UN High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman Paul Stromberg pointed to figures showing that of 75,000 refugees who repatriated from Burundi last July and August, only 6.7 percent found their houses occupied. Ten percent of returnees found their land taken over.

"The economy is largely a parallel one," he said, expressing hope that the mainly rural refugees would carve out small plots to till and set up simple mud homes.

Next step: dealing with the genocide

More problematic is what to do about the 85,000 suspected genocide perpetrators now languishing in overcrowded prisons nationwide. Their numbers may be swelled by returnees suspected of complicity in the genocide.

A new law aims to get a working juridical system going, especially as frustration grows with the slowness of the international war crimes tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania. But with only about a dozen qualified legal prosecutors in the country, it would be impossible to give every detainee a fair trial.

One diplomatic source says some members of the government have shifted away from the idea of reconciliation, but he believes that ultimately powerful pragmatists would win out.

"This government has made big strides toward reconciliation quickly, considering the genocide which has happened," he says. "The return of refugees represents a chance for greater stability in Rwanda. Now they have the chance to devote resources to education and fighting poverty, rather than diverting them to security."

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