On the surface, a tragedy playing out in the heart of Africa along the Congo-Rwanda border looks like a classic clash of unruly armies driven by ethnic fears, vying for might and minerals, barely curbed by former colonial powers. Dig deeper, though, and there might be an end to this conflict in the balm of reconciliation.
That quality of thought has not been in short supply inside Rwanda itself. There, leaders have tried since the 1994 genocide of nearly 800,000 Tutsis and others to find a balance between harsh justice and healing mercy for Hutu killers. A unique African style of resolving old crimes between peoples who once lived together peacefully is now needed more than ever to end Congo's latest war.
It was the post-genocide exile of hundreds of thousands of Rwanda's Hutu killers into Congo that has helped fuel the horrific wars that engulfed the region since the mid-1990s, leaving at least 4 million dead.
Not since World War II has humanity seen such killing numbers. Africa's stability relies in large part on achieving peace in Congo, a nation the size of western Europe.
The latest flare-up, in which a rebel army under Congolese warlord Laurent Nkunda has stormed the regional capital of Goma and forced tens of thousands to flee, provides a new impetus to reconcile the exiled Hutu murderers back into their land.
Mr. Nkunda claims to be protecting Congo's own Tutsis from the Hutu-led Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR), which still attacks in Rwanda. His harsh tactics, however, combined with atrocities committed by Congo's weak Army, have left innocent civilians either dead, raped, hungry, or homeless. Aid agencies are scrambling to end this humanitarian catastrophe.
International diplomacy may put a temporary stop to the current conflict, but because the root cause lies in Rwanda's genocide, the world needs to take a fresh look at attempts by Rwandan President Paul Kagame to resolve tensions between Hutus and Tutsis.
Mr. Kagame has clamped down on Rwandans who stir up the ethnic pot. He wants to create a national, nonethnic identity. It remains unclear, however, how much he still supports Nkunda or how far he will go to grant amnesty to an estimated 120 Hutus in Congo who are considered the genocide's ring-leaders and head the FDLR.
Village by village, Tutsis and Hutus have tried since the civil war to come to terms even as an international tribunal meted out Western-style justice to genocide perpetrators. While Rwanda did at first rely on executions, it banned capital punishment in 2007 and has used community-based courts called gacaca to deliver restorative justice. Elected judges grant mercy based on a person's confession and contrition.
Kagame's policy of amnesty, reintegration, and reconciliation has yet to work fully. A sense of "victor's justice" prevails and the gacaca are hampered by a rule that accused persons implicate co-conspirators. But his efforts need support to further erode the hatred that lingers from an ancient caste system between Tutsi and Hutu.
Rwanda could become a model for much of Africa on ending ethnic strife. But as Congo's war shows, it's a hard path to mercy.