Good intentions on the road to Hell

We may have to accept that there is nothing we can do to help in Zaire, writes Richard Dowden

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Catastrophe! Disaster! Apocalypse! For once the words are the right ones. Eastern Zaire is the latest zone of death in a continent where such disasters have become commonplace. And it could be the biggest. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes or refugee camps in eastern Zaire, and, cut off from fresh water, food and medical supplies, hundreds of thousands are going to die of hunger and disease. It was predictable and preventable, yet once again we are going to watch horrors unfold on television.

The United Nations and aid agencies are powerless to deliver help to those who need it. Men with guns, with or without uniforms, are blocking them, threatening their staff, looting their stores and stealing their vehicles. Only armed intervention can deliver aid now. So why is no one doing anything? Who is calling for intervention? Does the "do something" factor only kick in once the pictures become too ghastly to contemplate? In all the recent catastrophes; Ethiopia in 1984, Somalia in 1992 and Rwanda in 1994, the politicians acted only when the television pictures drove public opinion to demand action.Why are there only muted calls for action now?

The simple answer is the American election. The United States is the only country with the capacity to mount a quick and comprehensive intervention so far from home. But no one in Washington is going to do anything until next Thursday. Symptomatic was the announcement this week that Raymond Chretien, Canada's ambassador to the US had been appointed UN Special Mediator for the region but that he would not leave Washington till November 6.

For Western governments, the prospect of intervening in Zaire, the vast chaotic core of Africa, is too daunting - and there are no valuable mines or real estate there. It has traditionally been a French zone of influence but Paris got a bad press when it sent troops to Rwanda in 1994 to prop up the collapsing genocidal regime. It is under- standably reluctant to try again. Britain rarely risks its troops in Africa, even in areas where it has interests, though it might be persuaded to send a back-up team for someone else's show.

Having for years interfered in bits of Africa where they had strategic or commercial interests, Western governments appear to have decided that it is down to the Africans to solve eastern Zaire. But what happens when those pictures just get too bad, when too many children are dying on television and public opinion demands action?

It is precisely at that stage that intervention could be disastrous. That is the lesson from Rwanda in July 1994. Then the horror of the cholera and chaos in the refugee camps around Goma demanded action and the aid agencies went scurrying in. No one thought about the political consequences. Who were these people that the world was so keen to save? Many of them were Hutus who had perpetrated the genocidal murders of an estimated 800,000 fellow Rwandans two months before. Among them were the killers and most of the old Rwandan army, with their guns. The UN High Commission for Refugees rightly gave them food and shelter but failed to insist that, in accordance with its own rules, guns were removed and killers identified and arrested. Instead the camps became bases where the genocidaires tried to finish their work by conducting murdering raids across the border into Rwanda. As in Somalia in 1992, short-term humanitarian-led intervention wrecked the chances of a long-term political solution. Those camps are one of the two causes of today's disaster - preventable, predictable.

Already the scene is being set. The news and images we are now getting come from journalists stuck on the Zairean border. Unable to get near the heart of the matter, they rely on information fed via the Internet through Nairobi, and on the few aid officials and local staff still in the field. These aid workers, also stuck on the border unable to deliver a single high-protein biscuit to those in need, are the nearest to "expert" commentators the journalists can find. Their focus is, quite reasonably, humanitarian rather than political.

Analysis of the political causes has been limited to two camps: one says Tutsis and Hutus are working out a tribal rivalry going back centuries, the other says it is all caused by colonialism and Africa's artificial boundaries. Both are myths: partially true but not the causes of the war. The vast majority of Hutus and Tutsis are quite capable of living together in peace and would have done so had it not been for politicians who exploited the myths for their own ends. As for the boundaries, Rwanda and Burundi were both strong pre-colonial kingdoms and, with the exception perhaps of the western border of Rwanda, redrawn by the German and Belgian governments in 1910, the borders are largely irrelevant to the causes of this war.

What we are seeing in the region are the consequences of two avoidable decisions: one the failure of the international community to disarm the Hutu refugees in Zaire and induce them to go home. The other was the racism of the Zairean government which denied citizenship to the Tutsis in Kivu province whose ancestry there goes back more than 200 years. Well armed, well organised and highly motivated, they have carved out a Tutsi enclave in Kivu, giving the Tutsi-dominated government in Rwanda and the Tutsi military regime in Burundi a comfortable buffer zone against the Hutu militias formerly based in the refugee camps. They were almost certainly encouraged, and probably supplied, co-ordinated and even directed, by the governments of Rwanda and Burundi.

So is there a role for outsiders? If the world wants to save lives now, nothing less than a large, well-organised and well-equipped multi-national force can successfully intervene. It would have to carve out zones (riding roughshod over national territorial sensitivities), and declare internationally recognised safe havens in which disarmed refugees could be fed and protected. It would be there a long time, cost a lot of money and may take casualties. And it would only save lives. It would not secure peace. Such a quick- fix deal imposed from outside would be impossible and, if attempted, would make things worse. The errors made in Rwanda, where refugees and aid become pawns in local politics, must not be repeated.

Can outsiders affect those politics? A well-informed and well-supported international team of mediators might, one day, be useful. But the rest of us should have the humility to accept that there are no instant solutions and we should not try to provide them. Our role is far from glamorous - to remain engaged and ready with diplomatic support and aid. But we must also remember that it may be only the grandchildren of those now fleeing or fighting or weeping in refugee camps who will be able to build permanent homes and dig their fields in peace.

The author works for the Economist

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