One thing almost everyone can agree on about the Zaire crisis is that it is complex and becoming more so every day. While the international community may have sighed with relief as it watched more than half a million refugees stream into Rwanda, an estimated 200,000 others, many believed to be under the control of Rwandan Hutu militias, are still roaming eastern Zaire.
Many aid agencies (see footnote) say the need to reach and assist refugees trapped in Zaire is still urgent. Others point out that we can't assume the situation in Rwanda will take care of itself. Rwandan officials must integrate hundreds of thousands of Hutus back into society. Handling land and justice disputes will be the government's greatest challenge in the near future.
The greatest challenge facing the West has been making a quick but informed decision about what to do next. A Canadian-led military relief mission to Central Africa recently was approved by 14 countries, including the United States. Among other things, it would airlift food to refugees and to those displaced by fighting.
But questions and obstacles remain: The air-dropped food is likely to fall into the hands of armed Hutu guerrillas; the refugees are splitting into smaller groups, making them harder to find; Zaire refuses to grant the international force permission to overfly or enter its territory; and the crisis has spread, with Zaire and Uganda threatening reprisals against each other. Fighting in Burundi also has once again flared up.
Some Clinton administration officials say the events in Central Africa underscore the need for an all-African military intervention force, which was proposed by US Secretary of State Warren Christopher and rejected by the French and South African governments. The idea of such a force is a good one, and the US should continue to push for it. But as a spokesman for a refugee group working in Zaire said, that idea won't accomplish what's needed now.
Dennis Gallagher, executive director of the Refugee Policy Group, calls for something more imaginative than helping to "herd the refugees back home and hand out a bit of relief to them." He suggests an international conference on fundamental issues, among them justice in Rwanda and the status of ethnic Tutsis in Zaire.
The US and the rest of the international community will have to act responsibly to contain the current crisis. But, much as they might not wish to, they must do more.
Refugee relief agencies are listed in the US by InterAction at 202-667-8227, ext. 117, or on the Internet at www.interaction.org.