There Is Nothing the World Can Do

April 22, 1994|By DONALD R. MORRIS

Houston -- The grisly slaughter in Rwanda is maddening; as usual, the outside world does nothing -- except to evacuate whites, leaving the local people to their fate. TV was unable (or unwilling) to reach the area, leaving coverage to reports from appalled aid workers, and irrelevant file footage.

''Ethnic'' strife this decidedly is. It is being referred to as ''decades old;'' it isn't -- it's centuries old, and ''negotiations'' are out of the question; there's no magic piece of paper, or redrawn boundaries, which will resolve the conflict.

What was known as ''Rwanda-Urundi'' (each about the size of Maryland), is a landlocked patch on the eastern side of the Great Rift Valley, spang in the middle of Africa. The original inhabitants were the Twa -- forest pygmies who average 4 feet, 6 inches; about 150,000 are still there, with an isolated forest culture and little contact with others. In the 15th century, the Hutu arrived -- short, stocky peaceful pastoralists, with a culture based on cattle.

Two centuries later the Tutsi drifted in from the north, physically amazing, with an average height over six feet; many reach seven. Those who saw the 1950 ''King Solomon's Mines,'' filmed in their lands, have an excellent idea of what they and their original culture look like. And, as in the film there are intra-Tutsi tensions, between a Gwana elite and a Bahima-clan majority.

The Tutsi subjugated the Hutu and reduced them to feudal pTC serfdom; all Hutu families belonged to a Tutsi overlord, and ''share-cropped'' Tutsi cattle, which they might use but never own.

The system insured that Tutsi Hutu were inextricably mixed and can't be separated by redrawing borders.

Rwanda-Urundi passed to Germany in the 1890s, as part of its east African holdings. The Germans, fully occupied in what was then Tanganyika, did little to develop it, and in 1916 Belgian troops from the Congo occupied it. The Versailles treaty, which added Tanganyika to the British holdings of Kenya and Uganda, passed Rwanda-Urundi to the Belgians, as ''reparations.''

This was a tragedy. Not only were the Belgians miserable colonial overlords, Rwanda-Urundi was, with difficulties, administrable from east Af- rica, with tenuous links to the Indian Ocean ports of Mombasa and Dar-es-Salaam. It was now cut off from these natural ties and hooked on to the Belgian Congo, and almost impossible to reach from the Belgian administrative center of Leopoldville -- which had no decent access to the Atlantic itself, the mighty Congo being locked by falls below Stanley Pool. Facing east, and English-speaking, Rwanda-Urundi might have had a chance; facing west, and French- and Flemish-speaking, it was finished.

The economy was a no-hoper from the start. The region could feed itself except during the periodic droughts; even if the outside world noticed, it was almost impossible to get food supplies in. There were no rail lines west, and the country was unsuitable for trucks; you didn't ''drive'' there, you had to mount an expedition. There was tin and wolfram, and coffee, tea, cotton, pyrethrum and hides -- but even when a trickle of such goods finally managed to reach a port, the cost of transporting them there made them uncompetitive in world markets.

The Belgians were paternalistic to a fault. They established schools and were proud of the literacy rate; practically everyone was educated -- through the second grade, which was as far as the educational system went. (And at least half the schools were conducted in Flemish, a singularly useless language for furthering education.) In 1962, the Belgians decamped on short notice -- creating the two nations of Rwanda and Burundi, and announcing the new political system would be the ''one-man-one-vote'' democracy the outside world favored.

The results were predictable; the populations (say 7 million in Burundi and 9 million in Rwanda) displayed identical demographic features; an 85 percent Hutu majority, a 15 percent Tutsi minority -- and about 1 percent Twa, who were ignored by all. Rwanda established a constitutional monarchy with a Tutsi king (who was soon tossed out) and everything else Hutu; Burundi set up a republic, which was Hutu from the start.

Cyclic coups started in 1965; one or two rulers tried to rise above the ethnic issue, with integrated cabinets, but over half a million have by now been slaughtered, and a wave of well over a million refugees (both Hutu and Tutsi) fled to neighboring Uganda and Tanzania, where they form pools ready to breed fresh coups or reinforce their people during those already in progress. In 1972, the Burundi Hutus slaughtered 2,000 Tutsi -- resulting in the Tutsi massacring over 200,000 Hutu -- with a special effort to butcher all literate Hutus.

Foreigners are generally ignored, but the Roman Catholic Church has a history of working with, and backing, the Hutu -- making Hutu clergy, seminarians and nuns (and any students) especial Tutsi targets.

This isn't ''ethnic cleansing;'' neither Rwanda nor Burundi can be ''cleansed.'' It's outright genocide, and will almost unquestionably continue until the 2.5 million Tutsi have been exterminated. That will take some time, because the Tutsi are somewhat better educated and organized, equally ruthless and fighting for national survival.

The outside world may deplore it, but there is absolutely nothing it can do about it.

Except to evacuate the Europeans.

Donald R. Morris syndicates a column. He is the author of ''The Washing of the Spears,'' a history of the Zulus.

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