The goal of aid to Rwanda

August 01, 1994|By Catherine O'Neill

IN THE world of humanitarian relief, the law of unintended consequences of good intentions is becoming ever more important.

More than 1 million Rwandan people, most of them members of the Hutu clan, have been led out of Rwanda at the instigation of their own leaders. The Hutu faction had mercilessly slaughtered an estimated 500,000 Tutsis while the world community passively watched, cluck-clucking about man's continuing inhumanity to man but lifting nary a finger to stop the slaughter of the innocent children whose dying faces stared out at us for more than two months on evening news programs.

The Hutus fled a country where, even if ravaged by war, there was food in the fields, a village life and structure, and the war and dying had stopped.

The refugees' political leaders want to deny the Tutsi victors a population with which to rebuild the country. With their families safely supported by the world community in Zaire, the Hutu militants want to regroup, rearm, go back in, kill the Tutsis and reconquer Rwanda.

The job of the United Nations, the United States and other donor countries, if the Hutu leadership has its way, will be to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to keep their families alive in Zaire while the men and boys wage war.

The Hutu leaders have been willing to lead their own children into areas where they will be threatened by cholera, and they are now intimidating their people and telling them not to return, that horrible things will happen to them if they go back to Rwanda.

All evidence shows that more horrible things face those families in the death-saturated fields of Goma, Zaire. The new government of Rwanda has stated its intention to peacefully welcome the return of the population and to bring to justice the leaders of the Tutsi genocide.

What, then, should a newly sensitized world do if it wants to use its resources wisely in this region?

The answer should be to use the relief aid as a magnet to move people back to Rwanda to get on with the harvest. The Rwandan families walked out a week ago, and those who are not sick can be given provisions and an escort back home. And those who stayed in Rwanda should not receive less from the world community.

Help that goes to Rwanda also helps achieve Western governments' and the United Nations' goal of moving toward a more durable solution to the crisis. Putting 1 million people on an international food dole on the lava fields of Zaire is hardly a long-term answer, especially when they sit there because of a desire for political vengeance.

When Iraqi Kurds came flooding into Turkey, the United States was quick to establish the relief network back inside Iraq, because Turkey did not want the Kurds, a potentially destabilizing force.

In Rwanda, the situation is reversed. The Zairean thugs who have "the looting franchise" for the part of Zaire where the refugees have fled want the U.N. planes to keep landing in Goma. They hold up each plane until someone forks over money. If the refugees go back, the gold mine goes with them.

Somalia left the United States timid about anything that might be construed by the media as intervention in the affairs of an African state. We have said that we will work in Zaire and leave it up to the United Nations to work in Rwanda.

While nobody wishes those desperate children in Goma to be shortchanged in any effort to save their lives, it is equally horrible to think that their return home will be held up because the United States is willing to help them only if they continue to be refugees living in horrendous health conditions.

The U.S. humanitarian response to refugee needs has never been uncomplicated. In the 1980s, Afghans, Cambodians and Nicaraguans were encouraged to leave. Food and assistance served as a magnet, political leaders intimidated people not to return and we went along with it all.

Families were supported for years while men fought against what we described as Soviet-supported opposition forces. The United States put a humanitarian cloak on what was essentially an anti-communist political policy.

Now that has changed. Rwanda is unlikely to become a country where peace and prosperity reign forever. But for the moment, our pocketbooks and hearts are open. The resources should be used where they will have the greatest long-term positive humanitarian and political effects.

That is inside Rwanda, helping the country and the refugees return to normal.

Catherine O'Neill of Los Angeles is co-founder of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children.

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