The world will not be able to say that it has not been warned. For months now, Western aid workers, missionaries, non- governmental organisations (NGOs) and others have been reporting ominous signs of a new outbreak of violence. Pressing letters from contacts in the Great Lakes region into my hand, Barbara Harrell-Bond, the charismatic American who runs the Refugee Studies Programme at Oxford, said simply, "The whole region is in flames."
Does it matter? Should we not just conclude, in the brutal phrase they use in Washington, that Africa is a "basket case"? One African country after another has broken down in chaos and civil war. African economies remain mired as the economies of South-east Asia soar. Since independence, most African countries have been ruled by brutal tyrannies. What does it matter to us?
While parts of central Africa have rich deposits of minerals, the Great Lakes region has little except coffee, tea and the distant prospect of tourists who might be attracted by its mountain gorillas and its haunting landscapes, if it were ever safe to visit them again. African societies, the argument runs, have absorbed large quantities of Western aid without showing any signs of regeneration. Why not leave them to their fate?
Such indifference can be refuted at two levels. For one thing, taking Africa as a whole, the situation is not as bad as conventional despair implies. Multi-party democracy has returned to a number of African states. In any case, many of Africa's troubles were actually caused by the West. European colonists smashed existing agricultural economies and forced African societies into the straitjackets of artificial boundaries and inappropriate political systems. The damage did not end with the end of colonialism in the Sixties. In the past 15 years, African economies have been devastated by the economic hardship imposed by the International Monetary Fund in the name of "structural adjustment". In Rwanda, for example, the price of the staple export, coffee, on world markets fell by three- quarters between 1986 and 1992, and the IMF's response was to force the Rwandan government to devalue twice, first by 40 per cent, then by 15 per cent.
The second argument against simply writing off Rwanda and Burundi is ultimately a moral one. There are those who find themselves uncomfortable with morality in international politics. For them, it can be restated in a more cynical way. It is, after all, unsafe to share a world with desperate people, especially if they have as vindictive memories as the Tutsi and the Hutu. Of such memories are terrorists born.
The real case for solving the deadly riddle of Rwanda, though, is nakedly humanitarian. "The question", says the respected expert on Rwanda, Gerard Prunier, "is one of justice and humanity. Will the rich countries keep tolerating the slaughter of thousands of human beings because their deaths are no threat to them? If so, let us say so clearly. If not, the required level of action is involvement."
The question is not what level but what form of involvement promises to be effective. And here experts at the Oxford Refugee Studies Programme and elsewhere do not all agree. There are, it is clear, three strategies that could be adopted by the international community. That means the United Nations and its specialised agencies, the rich Western countries who would have to fund any serious policy, and the NGOs, who would have to bear the brunt of staffing and carrying it out.
The first, which is really no strategy at all, is preserving the status quo. But leaving close to 2 million refugees in camps in Zaire, Tanzania and Uganda is a recipe for catastrophe.
The two real alternatives are either to repatriate the refugees to Rwanda, perhaps to special secure zones like those provided for the Kurds, or to resettle them in the neighbouring countries to which they have fled. The objection to repatriation, says Ms Harrell-Bond, is that it would start the murderous cycle of ethnic hatred, massacre and forced migration all over again.
Not necessarily so, says her colleague Bonaventure Rutinwa, a Tanzanian law professor who is an expert on the Rwanda problem. He points out that neither Zaire nor Tanzania is willing to resettle hundreds of thousands of Rwandans. Ms Harrell-Bond counters that Tanzania probably would do so if the international community came across with the financial help that would be needed.
Where both do agree is that the genocide and the horrors of forced migration in central Africa will not end until the international community makes up its mind to find the resources, both for an immediate "fix" for the refugee problem, and for long-term restructuring of the region's economy. "The critical question", says Mr Rutinwa, "is where the international community should spend its resources: in camps, in neighbouring countries, or inside Rwanda."
The most original and - in spite of serious objections - the most promising suggestion is that the entire region should be put under UN trusteeship, not for ever, but for a period of 10 years or so. The Refugee Studies Programme has published a study by Dr Rachel Yeld, who has been working in Rwanda off and on since 1959, which makes this proposal. She argues that the first priority is to give donor countries confidence that their money would be well spent.
The idea is highly controversial. The United States is deeply suspicious of the UN. Its present Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, does not command general confidence. And the Rwandans have not yet forgotten how they were treated by the Belgians the last time their country was put under international trusteeship, in the Twenties.
Even so, the Yeld plan is the only hope. The West should not be deterred by the failure of the operation in Somalia. UN trusteeship would provide the political and administrative umbrella under which the US and Europe, through both governmental and non-governmental action, could funnel in resources where they would do most good. Repatriation and resettlement, after all, are not mutually exclusive policies: some refugees could be moved to safe zones inside Rwanda, while others are helped to start a new life in Tanzania.
What is urgent is that the international community should act before it is stampeded once more into hasty and inappropriate intervention by visions of hell on our television screens. UN trusteeship offers the only practical hope.Reuse content