Rwanda: How Did It Happen?

July 24, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Sun Staff Writer

Relief workers called him Moses. Yet instead of being pulled from reeds and bulrushes, this 2 1/2 -year-old Rwandan was found alive beneath the corpses of other refugees felled by mortar shrapnel and a trampling mob last week in Goma, along the Zaire-Rwanda border.

Nearby were piles of assault weapons and grenades seized from Rwandan government soldiers as they fled by the thousands into Zaire, fearing retribution in Rwanda's latest turn of gruesome events.

Moses' fragile luck may hold. A Baptist mission hopes to find him a home with a Zairian family, according to David R. Syme, regional director of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency.

But some 200,000 other refugees under age 5, many wandering dazed and alone after the cross-border rush, are at risk for the cholera and measles sweeping the 1.4 million refugees now clogging Zaire. Late last week, doctors saw the first cases of suspected bubonic plague.

"Kids are the losers," Mr. Syme said from Bujumbura, capital of neighboring Burundi.

The latest spasm of Rwanda's genocidal war fits a pattern of human pain exploding with breathtaking speed. The result is a catastrophe of historic proportions, with an overwhelming exodus packed into squalid, hard-to-reach Central African camps on volcanic ground so solid the refugees can't dig graves or latrines.

"I don't think the world has seen anything quite like it," said Brian Atwood, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), who was dispatched to the region by President Clinton to spearhead relief.

The disaster triggered a global effort involving more than 1,000 U.S. soldiers, scores of airlifts into Goma, a commitment of more than $100 million and a feeding, sanitation and medical-relief program that by week's end had begun to avert the prospect of mass death.

Almost lost in the hasty scramble of planes, trucks, supplies and soldiers and relief workers was the fact that, unlike hurricanes or earthquakes, this crisis was man-made, and possibly preventable, had the world's humanitarian impulse been matched by political will.

It began after the mysterious downing of a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana on April 6. Extremists in his Hutu-led government launched a campaign of extermination against any perceived rivals -- the once-powerful Tutsi minority and opposition Hutus. Soldiers with automatic weapons and grenades, and propaganda-crazed militiamen with machetes, spears and clubs killed up to a half-million people in a few weeks, driving hundreds of thousands of Hutus away from the massacres and toward bordering lands.

The terrorized survivors sprinted across Rwanda's hills into Burundi, into Uganda and into Tanzania. Others, including some middle-class Tutsi in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, were trapped in their homes, dependent on the silence and generosity of neighbors.

At the same time, the amply equipped Tutsi-dominated Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) moved in from neighboring Uganda. The RPF, composed of both Tutsi and Hutu but under Tutsi political guidance, outsmarted disarrayed government forces and pushed them within a few weeks into the south and west.

The bloodletting occurred in a void created by the sudden departure of foreign observers. Left behind were a small United Nations peacekeeping force and private relief workers, but few diplomats or journalists. U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali pushed unsuccessfully for an expanded force.

Mr. Atwood of AID, in a telephone interview, said it would have been virtually impossible to prevent the planned attacks without advance detection, adding that the irrational forces at work made halting the massacres even more difficult.

But a high-ranking U.N. official in New York, speaking on condition of anonymity, claimed this week that a mere 500 paratroopers, dispatched promptly into Rwanda, could have prevented the genocide.

The U.N. official faulted the United States and the other major powers for inaction, saying this example, combined with overall humanitarian fatigue, made other countries unenthusiastic.

France alone dispatched soldiers to Rwanda, after convincing the United Nations that its motives in the land where it was once a colonial power were purely humanitarian. But even French forces proved no match for the "grand peur" -- the great fear -- that enveloped the country.

Radio Milles Collines, the Hutu extremist propaganda organ, continued broadcasting from an elusive mobile transmitter, inciting panic among Hutus fearful of Tutsi retribution. French soldiers were unable to prevent a mass departure of civilians into Zaire even from their security zone. By Thursday, 2,000 an hour continued across the border.

Nor were the French and Zairian soldiers at the border able to disarm all the thousands of Rwandan government troops. Although a 4-foot-high stack of surrendered weapons surrounded young "Moses" during his hideous vigil, Mr. Syme reported seeing truckloads of fully armed Rwandan soldiers inside Zaire.

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