We have been here before. There is a disturbing déjà vu to the reports of thousands of refugees on the move with their mattresses and cooking pots in the border area between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
This latest outbreak of fighting follows a familiar pattern, for it has its roots in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 in which a minority of Hutus massacred 500,000 Tutsi in Rwanda under a Hutu-dominated military government. When that regime was ousted by a Tutsi force, two million Hutus, fearing reprisals, fled into eastern Congo, where large numbers remain. The area has, in the years since, remained a powder keg in which the two ethnic groups have co-existed uneasily, with frequent outbursts of violence. What makes all this worse is that the Rwandan government gives covert support to Tutsi militias which are in open revolt against the Congolese government. Conversely, the DRC government gives succour to the Hutu militias that oppose them. The two capitals deny this, but the truth is plain enough in an area which is rich in gold, coltan and other minerals.
The Congo, which is as big as Europe, is home to the world's largest peacekeeping force of 17,000 United Nations troops. There have been calls, by the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo and within the UN, for more troops to be sent. That is not the answer in a country which once absorbed armies from Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Sudan and Chad to no avail in a conflict which has cost five times as many lives as the Rwandan genocide. The UN troops are often ineffectual, occasionally finding themselves stoned by locals frustrated by their ineffectiveness against the militias.
The UN Secretary General has sent envoys to the presidents of both the DRC and Rwanda. What they need to press for is round-table talks which involve not just both governments but also both rebel militia forces, something the DRC has until now opposed.
The international community, and most particularly the African Union, needs to push for face-to-face talks between the four parties. It failed to act early enough in 1994, and it must not make the same mistake again.