PERSPECTIVE ON RWANDA : Before the Bloodletting, and After : Under the guise of ethnicity, zealots foster prejudice and incite murder to pursue a political agenda in what was a poor but peaceful country.

Jeffrey Lite is a senior Foreign Service officer with the United States Information Agency in Washington.

Small, poor and remote, the landlocked central African republic of Rwanda burst upon the American consciousness with an orgy of bloodletting. Among the dead is my friend and former colleague, Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Landoald Ndasingwa. His Canadian-born wife, Helene, is missing and presumed dead. Their two teen-aged children, Malaika and Patrick, are unaccounted for.

The Rwanda the world knows from reading the newspapers and watching the evening news is a savage killing field, a place where human life is cheap and vengeance the prevailing emotion. But I remember another Rwanda, a poor but peaceful and beautiful country whose people struggled to build a better life for themselves and their families.

In the early 1980s, when I worked as public-affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy there, every cultivable acre of the "Land of a Thousand Hills" was lush and green with beans, rice, banana trees and other produce. Some of the world's finest tea and coffee grew on mountain slopes. Lions and other wildlife roamed the Akagera National Park, and the world's few remaining highland gorillas--Dian Fossey's "Gorillas in the Mist"--found sanctuary in a protected zone in the shadow of active volcanoes on the border with Zaire. The civil war that has engulfed Rwanda places these magnificent creatures, already endangered, at risk of extinction.

Most of the main roads were unpaved when I lived there. A trip south from the capital, Kigali, to the town of Butare was a bone-jarring three-hour journey on a dirt road that precariously hugged the sides of the hills. That road is paved now, a result of improvements financed by the international community. It was along this road last month that Americans and other foreigners fled in convoys to safety in Burundi.

The convoys passed the university in Butare. A generation of Rwandans, both Hutus and Tutsis, studied together there to gain the skills necessary to lead their country toward greater prosperity. In doing so, they followed in the footsteps of an earlier generation of Rwandans who had studied abroad and returned to help build their country.

Landoald Ndasingwa was one of these. Stricken with polio as a child, he walked with a limp but refused to be limited by his physical handicap. He attended university in Canada and then worked as my assistant for cultural affairs in Kigali. After saving enough from his job with the embassy, he and his wife built a restaurant and hotel and worked hard to make their business a success.

At the same time, he became active in politics. When the Hutu-dominated government broadened its ethnic base, "Lando" was one of a number of Tutsis invited to join the Cabinet.

We had many conversations about Rwanda's future over bottles of locally bottled Primus beer on the front porch of his home overlooking one of the valleys around the capital. Lando spoke of the need for ethnic reconciliation and of his vision for the country as a place where his children could live free of the strife earlier generations had endured. Many other Rwandans--Hutu and Tutsi alike--shared the dream that Lando described. Indeed, Hutus and Tutsis mingled easily and got along well in their daily activities, and intermarriage was not uncommon.

As in the former Yugoslavia and Haiti, though, it is not the common folk in Rwanda who have plunged their country into violence, but ethnic zealots who have fanned the embers of mistrust to advance their own political objectives.

Rwanda never had much going for it. It lacks strategically important or intrinsically valuable natural resources. With more than 7 million people in an area roughly the size of Maryland, it is the most densely populated country in sub-Saharan Africa. It has little industrial base, and its growing population, which doubled between 1970 and 1990, places heavy demands on the limited land available for farming. It has been hit hard by AIDS. Poverty, hunger and disease cut across ethnic lines.

If it had not been for April's bloodbath, most Americans would never have heard of Rwanda, and as the violence decreases and other, more urgent stories command the headlines, it is likely to sink back into obscurity. People will forget and move on to the next crisis, left only with a vague memory of atrocities committed somewhere in Africa and an image of anonymous bodies piled by the roadsides.

But the dead are not anonymous. This tragedy is happening to real people, whose society is very different from our own but whose aspirations for themselves and their families are not. Such violence is not limited to Africa. We have witnessed too much ethnic conflict around the world in this century to dismiss mass slaughter as merely an African phenomenon.

Political opportunists in many lands who manipulate their compatriots to achieve their own selfish ends seem not to know or care about the destructive forces they unleash when they appeal to ethnic prejudice and misguided national pride. We can only hope that the bloodshed in Rwanda will stop soon, and that what happened in Rwanda will make people in other lands understand the lunacy of answering such appeals and following such leaders.

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