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Rwanda echoes other avoidable tragedies

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Gisenyi, Rwanda

One of the world's great humanitarian disasters is unfolding a few miles away from where I write this. Nearly one million refugees are caught between warring armies, moving through fields and mountains, struggling to find water, food and safety. With my computer in front of me and a candle beside me, I am struck by the irony of the situation, my own and the world's.

I am the director of a refugee relief program in Gisenyi, Rwanda, just across the border from Goma, Zaire. I have lived here for two years, engaged in the struggle to find a solution for the refugee problem plaguing the region. My program tries to assist many of the 45,000 children who lost their parents during the genocide and exodus of 1994. Like all problems of immense proportions, we can only do this one step, or one child, at a time.

The candle and the computer are fitting images of the world we now inhabit. While refugees flee or fight over a few drops of water, the nearby hotels are packed with journalists. Satellite dishes have sprung up here like refugee tents on the hillsides. United Nations teams speak of lift capacity and early response capabilities. Yet we -- the international press and humanitarian agencies -- are only reacting to the situation. We are powerless to address the cause of the problem. All we can do is report it and deal with its consequences.

But what is the cause? Several years ago I made a journey that began in Auschwitz, Poland. I stood beside stone ovens where, only 50 years before, the Nazis exterminated millions of Jews. Next I walked across the killing fields of Cambodia where, 19 years before, the Khmer Rouge slaughtered more than one million of their own citizens. Later I stayed in a hostel in Zagreb, Croatia, with families of some of the thousands "cleansed" by the Serbs from the city of Vukuvar only two years before. Last year, I watched the uncovering of 10,000 victims of Rwanda's genocide only six months after their deaths.

Now I sit again at the edge of the abyss as thousands die nearby and the rest have only days to live. I realize that one cause is that we have learned nothing from our past.

We leave the difficult answers and painful diplomacy behind. Instead, we put our faith in technology. I can walk out this door, drive a Landrover fitted with a global positioning system and satellite telephone capable of placing a call to a remote mountain village. There, I can reunite a child with his grandmother found through a sophisticated database and then inform the world. But I can do little to prevent thousands of children from now losing their families.

I make this plea to the world that now is the time to shape events. We must not be reactionary. The powers that be must realize that our faith in technology is misguided. After all, a global positioning system will only tell us where we are. It can't tell us how we got there or where to go next.

The problems here are not only political; they are philosophical. The chief cause is in the hearts and minds of the people. They fear one another, and that fear has become a dangerous hatred. Leaders manipulate their populations and truth is hard to find. In this environment, there is much that can be done by the international community.

We must attack this problem with powerful compassion, clear intelligence and force of will. We all realize that in our personal lives, if we want to make positive change, we must sometimes undergo painful effort. Why can we not realize this on a larger scale?

In the great lakes region of Central Africa, the international community did not plant the seeds of the problem. But we nurtured them. Lionel Rosenblatt, president of Refugees International, a private advocacy organization, said, "This is the biggest crisis in terms of its humanitarian and potential political dimensions that we have seen in Africa since the 1960s."

He points out that the failure of the international community to intervene to stop the genocide of 1994 and the subsequent reluctance of UN agencies to clear the refugee camps of the "interhamwe," the Hutu leaders responsible for the deaths of thousands, led directly to the present crisis.

In August 1995, Zaire began a forced repatriation from the camps in Goma. Prior to the operation, the Zairean military friends of the interhamwe warned them to leave the camps and hide in the hills. For four days, those of us on this side of the border welcomed thousands of innocent Hutu civilians happy to be freed from the pressure of their leaders and allowed to return home. But after days of vigorous diplomacy, the international community stopped the operation in the basic belief that no one should be required to return to a country where they are at risk.

So the refugee leaders filtered back into the camps and vowed never to lose control of their population again. We went back to providing food, building basketball courts, and claiming that humanitarian aid should be separate from political action. These interhamwe are the camp leaders that now prevent refugees from reaching food, water and shelter.

Now we have an opportunity not only to save lives but to take action for a durable solution to the crisis of the great lakes. We must enter now to separate the refugee leaders and free the innocents under their control. Humanitarian corridors must be immediately established that will stabilize the situation and entice the refugees homeward through a series of retreating way stations into Rwanda.

Gay McDougall of the International Human Rights Law Group said on CNN that the camp militants must be disarmed and segregated as a necessary key to the solution of the problem. She added, however, that no world force wants to take on this task.

We must do this now for soon the front covers of the world's magazines and newspapers will show scenes of emaciation and death. And once again the world will only be able to react. For us, that means to begin again, one child at a time. For the world it means a choice. Either we use our compassion, intelligence and will to save lives now. Or we gear up our latest technology and produce endless, useless exposes titled "Never Again."

National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 1996