Rwandan refugees dying in Zaire Desperate Hutus: Captors with guns won't let them go home.

April 16, 1997

THE ASPECT of the Zairian civil war crying out for international intervention is the plight of Hutu refugees, herded by former soldiers toward death by starvation and disease. Laurent Kabila, who seems certain to take over Zaire in the near future, will then want international aid, respect and cooperation. He should be judged on how well he facilitates aid agencies in finding and rescuing these refugees.

Of some 100,000 surviving Hutu refugees who fled the Tingi-Tingi camp in March, some two-thirds have been spotted moving toward the Central African Republic to the north. This forlorn country has its own turmoil and is ill-equipped to handle them humanely. Another one-third are heading south toward Angola, which is a wealthier country but with its own insurgency in the area they might reach.

These people are not free agents. They were propelled to Zaire by former soldiers and militia of the Hutu regime of Rwanda, who were responsible for the genocide of rival Tutsis which provoked their own overthrow in 1994. Both France and Zaire bore some responsibility for maintaining this Hutu armed soldiery in camps as a continuing threat to the new regime in their homeland. Their raids provoked the attacks on their camps by Rwandan Tutsi troops and Zairian rebels, which grew into the impending overthrow of Zaire.

Most of the Hutu men, women and children fleeing in eastern Zaire on orders of their armed compatriots are not responsible for the tragedy. They are dying of thirst, starvation and disease. In their desperation, they menace local people, animal life and property. What is needed is for international humanitarian aid agencies -- which are trying -- to reach them with water, food and medicine, then to separate the civilians from the soldiers and arrange an orderly return of most to Rwanda.

Mr. Kabila's movement has understandably opposed an international intervention in his civil war. But cooperation with efforts to save innocent life is something else, which he has no good reason to oppose. Mr. Kabila has startled many observers, knowing only his revolutionary past, with the initial efficiency and fairness of his takeover. This is another way in which he can enhance his standing with the Zairian people and world community.

! Pub Date: 4/16/97

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