Carter, African Leaders Seek Solution to Rwanda : Refugees: The fate of 2 million displaced Hutus is the key to whether civil war breaks out again.


It was billed as a historic peace conference to try to avert a potential civil war and resolve the lingering plight of Rwanda’s remaining million refugees.

Except that the refugees themselves were not invited to the table to be heard.

And the United Nations refugee agency, which has claimed to represent the refugees on past occasions, decided not to attend.

So, alone, the presidents of the four principal nations of the region gathered Tuesday in Cairo with former President Jimmy Carter as facilitator and South African Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu as spiritual supporter.


The refugees whose fate these leaders seek to determine are the losers of last year’s Rwandan civil war. They are Hutus and they fear retribution if they return to a country controlled by the victorious Tutsis. And their leaders have ordered them to stay put, get strong on relief food and medicine, and prepare to retake their country, by force if necessary.

Against that, the presidential summit described goals that were hazy but surely grave: Could these heads of state agree on a timetable and means to repatriate the 1.3 million Rwandan refugees now living in giant city-camps in Zaire, as well as another 700,000 in Tanzania?

Could they also find a way to halt border skirmishes that are increasing between the refugees and the Rwandan government? That is, can the sparks of full-fledged war be snuffed out now?

And what of justice? Many among the Hutu refugees are accused in the 1994 genocide of 500,000 unarmed Tutsi civilians during the early stages of the civil war.

If these presidents could find solutions for such questions, how would their decisions be enforced? By whom? At what cost?

And what of Rwanda’s equally tiny, chaotic neighbor, Burundi, where dozens of people die weekly in clashes between the Tutsi army and Hutu revolutionaries. Could the presidents find a solution to generations of bloody hatred and fear there?

Among the many peacemaking efforts Carter has undertaken in his retirement, this could prove his most difficult. The African leaders enlisted his services when they met informally at the 50th anniversary celebrations of the United Nations in New York last month.

Carter indicated his view at the summit’s opening session that it was better to have the leaders talking than not talking.

President Pasteur Bizimungu of Rwanda attended the summit, but only after receiving assurances that refugee leaders would not be given standing to attend. His government has steadfastly refused to negotiate with the losers of the war.

President Sylvestre Ntibantunganya of Burundi attended, but his power has been so drastically compromised by anarchy at home that he can claim authority over neither Burundi’s Tutsi army nor the country’s Hutu majority.

President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda took his seat at the conference. As benefactor and supporter of the present Rwanda regime, he is widely demonized by refugees as the man behind the army that drove them from their country.

President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, one of Africa’s remaining tyrants, attended and may prove to be the key, if there is one, to whatever gains such a gathering could hope to attain.

Zaire has threatened to forcibly eject the refugees at year’s end, although lately it has softened its position. Zaire also has been accused of allowing the refugees to rearm and retrain in preparation for resuming their civil war.

If Mobutu gives ground on either issue, the conference could claim at least some progress.

But few seemed sanguine about a comprehensive agreement. No sooner had the presidents arrived than they began planning to advance their departures.

And from his bitter experience at home, Burundi’s Ntibantunganya summed up his own hopelessness: “If these people want peace, they are going to have peace. If they want war, they are going to have war. It is very simple.”