That way to Massacre, this way to Plague

Click to follow
RWANDA gets in everywhere, like a fine dust that clogs the nostrils and lines the roof of the mouth. It haunts you if you watch it. It haunts you if you look away. It has a scale which defies the imagination. And it has its own repellent intimacy as well.

One of the best photographs of horror came recently from Rwanda. It was not a close-up. Much reproduced, it showed the remains of a massacre in the distance, at what seemed to be a crossroads. The power of the photograph seemed to come from its conveying the sense: if you were in Rwanda, this is what might happen; you would be going along the road, and then you would see this in the distance, and in the pit of your stomach you would know that something horrible had happened.

Some of the best recent radio reportage also came from Rwanda. It was a series of pieces by Andy Kershaw, which were the radio equivalent of the close-up. The reporter described as he went along, just noting down detail after detail after detail.

Those two examples came from Phase One, the massacre. Phase Two, the exodus and the plague, have been as notable for their speed as for their scale. That was the point to which Baroness Chalker kept returning in the interview she gave John Humphrys. That was the thing that caught everyone out - the speed. One moment the doctors were warning of cholera. The next moment (it seemed) the refugees were dying at a rate of one a minute. Even before the American planes had left on their mission, people were already saying (a good thing they weren't listened to) that it was all too late.

Caught up in all this speed was the columnist Simon Jenkins, who published an article one day under the heading 'Leave Rwanda alone', and the next day was having to say on the radio that he did not actually mean the plight of those in the camps should be ignored. There were angry letters in the Times, but I sympathised with Mr Jenkins to an extent. At least one of his points had been a good one. He was deploring the idea that the aid agencies should establish camps on the borders of Rwanda which would then become bases for the regrouping of the fallen Hutu government.

All one's instincts agreed with this plea: now that the Rwandese Patriotic Front have defeated the perpetrators of the massacre, let them govern, let them re-establish the country, let them call the refugees home from exile. But instincts turn out to be not enough. The French had already laid the foundation for the regrouping of the Hutu leaders. The Zaireans appeared to be on the side of the old government as well, and until yesterday, when their prime minister visited the area, they were keeping the borders closed.

Worst of all, cholera and dysentery make it hard for a family simply to walk back to their village and start planting again for the new season. The truth here and now is that the sick will have to be treated where they are. The camps are an established, deplorable fact of life.

The sense that Mr Jenkins was trying to convey, that the world's actions over the next weeks and months would lay the groundwork for future wars - that point had a horrible familiarity.

In the late Seventies, after their regime and its massacres were finished, the Khmer Rouge slipped across into Thailand with the remnants of their defeated army. Fifteen years later, they are still not eradicated from Cambodia. They got rest and recuperation from the Thai government and recognition from the Western world. They had suddenly appeared in the guise of 'our enemy's enemy', and by the logic of those times this made them a sort of friend.

What is happening in Rwanda and the camps would appear to dwarf Cambodia in scale. According to estimates, of 8 million Rwandans a quarter are dead or missing, and a quarter have fled and are therefore presumably in extreme danger of death from disease and starvation. Yet even without the extreme urgency of the present crisis of provision of water and food and the treatment of disease, I would still not be tempted by the argument which says: Rwanda would be better off without any foreign intervention, either by government or by agencies.

It's not intended as such, but it's a kind of Utopianism that says: if country X could only be allowed to go its own sweet way, it would be very much better off. For this to be true, it requires the country in question to achieve a kind of stasis, an ideal moment of balance and calm, starting from which this new untrammelled progress can begin.

The Khmer Rouge were famous for their conception of setting the clock at Year Zero - and this in 1975 at the end of a bitter war, when they fiercely rejected any kind of aid and anything that smacked of the 'humanitarian bandwagon'. Burma is another great rejecter of foreign influence. Neither case inspires emulation.

Aid is not to blame for everything. It was not, after all, the promise of aid that lured all those families out to their deaths in Goma. It was not the prospect of some cushy life under canvas. It was either a reasonable assessment of risk (which every foreign observer, including the prime minister of Zaire, seems to doubt) or the orchestrated efforts of the defeated Hutu leadership and Radio Milles Collines.

While instinct and the emotions tell one that it might be a good thing for Rwanda to enjoy a simple, clear solution to its military conflict, and thus that it was perhaps a good thing that the United Nations got out of the way while the RPF got on with their victory, there remains the awkward fact of all those millions of feet voting for the opposite outcome. Lovers of clear-cut, swift, neat solutions often seem to end up with something that is quite other than clear-cut or neat.

Non-intervention is a neat solution. No doubt the massacre of the Tutsis also recommended itself as clear-cut. In the end, however, we were left with an unanswerable imperative to intervene in order to save the lives of people who clearly believe themselves to be so implicated in the massacre of the Tutsis as to be in mortal danger.

Neat is not neat. Clear-cut is not clear-cut. Everyone knows that we cannot avoid involvement. And even if we believe that the miseries of Africa are due in no small measure to the history of our involvement there, that recognition does not let us off today's hook.