While the world this week toasts what concerted international action has helped accomplish in South Africa, a poor and overcrowded country 1,800 miles to the north demonstrates the sobering limits of such efforts.
More than 100,000 Rwandans--some estimates put it as high as 200,000--have perished in ethnic butchery that began April 7, perhaps setting a contemporary record for concentrated slaughter. Yet the world’s powerful nations, preoccupied and uncertain, have taken only limited diplomatic steps to end it.
Although Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali made a guarded plea late Friday for the United Nations to take some sort of action to halt the Rwandan bloodshed, the United Nations--sponsor of 17 peacekeeping missions--could barely be persuaded last week to maintain a tiny 270-soldier detachment in the central African country.
The Clinton Administration has limited its efforts largely to unspecified threats to the country’s army, while in Congress, the usual calls for U.S. action are eerily absent--even from the Congressional Black Caucus.
“There are some groups terribly concerned about the gorillas,” says Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), whose state is home to a gorilla research organization. “But--it sounds terrible--people just don’t know what can be done about the people.”
The muted reaction to Rwanda’s tragedy is in part a consequence of its remote location and unfamiliar culture.
But as the calamity has moved into its fourth week, it has also become clear that Rwanda’s distress has been little heeded because of accidents of timing and because the scale of the strife is now so vast that it actually discourages assistance.
Long portrayed as a sort of equatorial Switzerland, rocky-spined Rwanda has been racked in recent years by an exploding population, a soaring HIV infection rate and over-cultivation of its terraced farmland.
The strife between an army run by the majority Hutus and the rebel forces dominated by minority Tutsi began April 7 after the mysterious downing April 6 of a plane carrying the Rwandan president and the president of neighboring Burundi, both Hutus. The violence, widely described as genocide, has included the systematic slaying of unarmed civilians with machetes, knives, clubs and grenades.
Rwanda’s agonies might have aroused more international reaction during the Cold War, when great powers maintained ties to such countries as the former Belgian Congo and Angola to offset the influence of their rivals.
Some analysts believe that the strife might have attracted more attention before last October, when the death of 18 U.S. soldiers in a firefight in Somalia brought a sudden shift in Western assessment of the risks in peacekeeping ventures.
This changed attitude was evident recently when the U.S. government sent a detachment of Marines to the Burundi-Rwandan border--but not a step farther--as it considered how best to protect refugees.
“We are so totally gun-shy after Mogadishu, we wouldn’t even send the Marines in,” said Rep. Harry A. Johnston (D-Fla.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa.
A civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina has also figured in the Rwandans’ ill luck.
Western leaders are still wrestling with their role in a conflict that seems to demonstrate both the high cost of intervention in ethnic fights and perhaps also the futility. Closer and with at least some strategic significance for the West, Bosnia has first call on their attentions.
“The world is heavily engaged in other conflicts at the moment,” said Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
In the United States, members of the Congressional Black Caucus--the Rwandans’ most likely political allies--are wrapped up in efforts to change the Administration’s Haiti policy and influence the U.S. role in South Africa. The caucus has been studying the situation in Rwanda but has made no special plea for relief.
The outside world’s response to date has consisted largely of turning to other African nations and the Organization of African Unity for leadership, while waiting for the killing to end.
In the view of some human rights groups, the most important White House response has been to suggest that it is keeping track of the identities of Hutu military leaders. The announcement was intended to hint that U.S. officials might favor some war-crimes tribunal or, at least, that it would not want to deal with any government led by those officials.
But President Clinton “is stumped,” said Johnston, who discussed Rwanda with him at an Oval Office meeting this week.
With reports now of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the violence not only in Rwanda but also now in neighboring Burundi, some U.S. analysts predict that, in the end, the greatest contribution of the United States to the crisis may come in its absorption of immigrants--legal and illegal--who are fleeing the country.
King Kigali V, the deposed Tutsi monarch, was granted asylum in the United States two years ago and is now trying to organize relief efforts from a small apartment outside Washington. He has applied for government food stamps.
“If we don’t come to them, they will come to us anyway,” one congressional aide said.