More than 200,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees were this week trapped in the heart of the Zairean jungle when Zaire finally launched its mercenary-led counter-offensive against the Rwandan- backed rebels who have captured a huge swathe of eastern Zaire.
Congregated around the towns of Amisi, Tingi Tingi and Shabunda, weak after trekking hundreds of kilometres west through the bush, they are surviving on supplies which have been flown in by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
While the UNHCR lobbies the international community, the rebels and Zaire to rescue them, there is little sign that anyone is prepared to help. It is quite different from November last year, a month into the rebellion, when the world clamoured for action to save more than a million Rwandan Hutu refugees trapped in eastern Zaire and a multi-national UN force was poised to intervene.
The crisis "ended" with the awesome spectacle of 700,000 refugees spontaneously making their own way back across the border. The world breathed a sigh of relief and switched its television sets off. Those now trapped in the Zairean jungle are the rump that walked against the tide.
Although the plight of the Hutu refugees attracted worldwide sympathy, they were regarded with ambivalence by many observers in the Great Lakes. Their flight to Zaire followed the 1994 Hutu genocide of 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis. The UN refugee camps became the base from which those who were guilty of genocide plotted to recapture Rwanda from the new Tutsi-led government. The Rwandan government backed the rebellion in eastern Zaire to eradicate the threat on its doorstep.
In his plush Kinshasa office, the Western diplomat admits that among the refugees now languishing in the jungle there are innocent children and adults. "But there are many, many Interhamwe" [the organisers of the genocide]", he says, "people who have trekked into Zaire because they can never go home." Why, he implies, should he care?
Now that the world is not watching, the question appears academic. It is convenient to shelve the vexed issue as the stakes rise in the Great Lakes. With the launch of the government counter-offensive, led by 200 to 300 foreign mercenaries and two battalions of Angolan Unita rebels, more than 700,000 people in eastern Zaire were reported to be on the move. The likelihood of a regional catastrophe, which threatens to engulf the whole of central Africa, has increased.
In Kinshasa, some diplomats say a Great Lakes war, pitting Rwanda and Uganda against Zaire, is already clandestinely under way, and that the uprising in eastern Zaire was only a smokescreen for a Rwandan attack.
This theory is being advanced now with greater vigour than before. The rebels, under Laurent Kabila, an opponent of Zaire's corrupt dictator, General Mobutu Sese Seko, are rubbished; the capabilities of the thuggish Zairean army, which is under new leadership, are being played up. The conflict is reported to be escalating, with Uganda and Rwanda sending in reinforcements to meet the counter-offensive.
This new, stronger line from some Western governments contrasts with the feelings of most ordinary Zaireans. At first they demonstrated against Mr Kabila, who was denounced as a Rwandan puppet by the Mobutu regime. But now they mostly believe the rebel movement is homegrown and that Mr Kabila is a national hero.
But then the West has made an art form of being out of step with popular feeling in Zaire. For years it propped up the Mobutu regime, sending in troops to crush popular revolts, although it was obvious that the dictator was bleeding the former Belgian colony dry.
Today Zaire has no infrastructure. Entire regions are virtually autonomous; tributes or payments to Kinshasa are made simply to keep Mr Mobutu's mafia at bay. The people are among the poorest in the world. Yet the West still chooses to put its faith in the Prime Minister, Kengo wa Dondo, an unpopular figure since the ailing President engineered his election during a brief visit home from France, where he is being treated for cancer.
"When the state is collapsing you hang on to institutions that still exist," another diplomat explained. But Mukendi Malumba, chief adviser to the main opposition leader, Etienne Tshisekedi, says the West is naive to think Kengo wa Dondo will ever hold fair elections.
Tense times have resulted in diplomatic feuds. Dan Simpson, the US ambassador to Zaire, recently accused France of neo-colonialism in Africa. The French, who to their shame supported the Rwandan Hutu regime which committed the 1994 genocide, claim the US supported the Tutsi-led Rwandan government in its surrogate aggression against Zaire.
The row was smoothed over during diplomatic discussions in Paris two weeks ago. The over-riding common interest, it was agreed, was to maintain the existing borders. These were drawn up at the 1878 Berlin conference, when Europe carved up Africa, ignoring the existing tribal and language groups.
Richard Cornwall, of the Africa Institute of South Africa, compares the Zairean state to blancmange. "You try to grab but there is really nothing there," he says. "But the fiction of the state has to be maintained, or else a whole can of worms is opened and no one wants to deal with that."
One theory portrays the giant, tottering state of Zaire as a territorial buffet table at which the nine countries on its borders are feasting. Now that Rwanda's original aim, the neutralisation of the Hutu threat, has largely been achieved, it might be expected to withdraw.
In order to prevent regional chaos, the international community will be willing to sacrifice the refugees, human rights and the democratic aspirations of Zaire's people.Reuse content