By Stephen Buckley
Fighting in eastern Zaire between armed Tutsis and the Zairian military, as well as recent attacks on refugee camps, appear to have been orchestrated by a Rwandan government weary of a two-year-long crisis at its borders, according to political analysts.
Analysts and aid workers, stressing that they have no direct evidence, suggested that the Rwandan government is trying to goad 1.1 million Rwandan refugees in Zaire into dismantling their camps -- something the United Nations and Western governments have been unable to do since the refugee crisis began in July 1994.
The Rwandan refugees -- almost all of them members of the country's dominant Hutu ethnic group -- fled to Zaire after a Tutsi rebel force toppled a Hutu-led government whose campaign of tribal slaughter claimed the lives of an estimated half-million Rwandans, most of them Tutsis. In the ensuing two years, the teeming refugee camps around Goma, Zaire, have provided a haven for the leaders of the Rwandan genocide and allowed them to stage cross-border raids against the Tutsi-led government that replaced them in Kigali.
As the incursions into Rwanda have grown more frequent in recent months, analysts said, solving the crisis has taken on fresh urgency for the Rwandan government.
Tutsis account for 14 percent of the population of both Rwanda and Burundi; in addition, there are an estimated 200,000 Tutsis in Zaire, known as the Banyamulenge, who have been engaged in sporadic fighting with the Zairian army. Analysts say the Rwandan military has been training the Banyamulenge for more than a year, ever since Zairian government officials began trying to expel them.
In essence, analysts said, tensions between Tutsis in Zaire and the military there provided the perfect opportunity for Rwanda's government to solve its own crisis -- and for Burundi, which is also run by a Tutsi-controlled army, to neutralize a Burundian Hutu rebel force operating for two years out of Zaire, near Uvira.
The fighting inside Zaire between the Banyamulenge and the military "opened the door to the Rwandans, who are happy for the chance to clear away the refugee problem on their doorstep," said Alison DesForges, a human rights worker and regional analyst who has studied Rwanda for three decades.
Recent attacks on the camps around the Zairian town of Goma -- where most of the 1.1 million refugees live -- are being carried out by Rwandan soldiers, analysts and aid workers said.
"There were no Banyamulenge in the region this weekend, so that doesn't leave many options," said one relief agency official who asked not to be identified.
Both Rwanda and Burundi repeatedly have denied direct involvement in the conflict between Tutsis and the Zairian military, and Rwandan government officials have scoffed at charges that their soldiers attacked the Goma camps.
Ultimately, analysts said, blame for this latest round of upheaval lay in part at the feet of the United Nations and Western governments that failed to help Rwanda adequately address the refugee crisis.
"The entire international community has dropped the ball," DesForges said. "For two years, it has been clear that in political terms, in economic terms, in environmental terms, this is an issue that has needed to be resolved. It was clear that this problem was not simply going to go away."
Some analysts contend that the core issue has been the failure of the United Nations and foreign countries to help Rwanda apprehend the leaders of the 1994 genocide in the Zairian refugee camps.
"The perpetrators of the genocide have used the camps as bases, and the refugees are caught in the middle," said Pauline Baker, an expert on ethnic conflict and international diplomacy at Georgetown University who has focused on Africa. "The problem is that no one wants to go after the leaders of the genocide, because it would involve a military operation. . . . It's the Somalia syndrome."
While Rwanda may succeed in closing the Zaire camps and Burundi's rebels may be neutralized, peace may continue to elude this long-troubled region.
Instead, the recent turmoil may be the opening stage of a long and wide-scale war in Central Africa or a deepening humanitarian crisis. As a result of this month's fighting, an estimated 500,000 Rwandan refugees have left their camps in Zaire, and most appear to be moving not toward Rwanda but farther into Zaire.
Baker said the current crisis threatens to explode into "a regional war with no fixed lines. . . . It would be very much like Somalia, except that it would involve all of Central Africa."
DesForges said the movement of the refugees farther into Zaire bodes ill for a huge, fractious country beset by debilitating poverty and a central government paralyzed by the absence of its leader, Mobutu Sese Seko, who is in Switzerland for treatment following cancer surgery.
While the refugees' movement farther into Zaire may allow Rwanda to avoid having to provide for them, "then we have a new problem -- absorbing the refugees into a state that does not have the resources to take them in," DesForges said.
"There won't be any camps to provide food, so they're going to start fighting for food" with Zairians, DesForges added. "And the Zairians who need that food themselves are going to fight back. There will be no way around that kind of conflict."
=A9 Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company