In the Camps, the Rwandan Crisis Goes On

By Frerichs, Jonathan | The Christian Century, February 22, 1995 | Go to article overview

In the Camps, the Rwandan Crisis Goes On


Frerichs, Jonathan, The Christian Century


OLD MEN WANDER, widows scrounge, families barter, children play, pastors visit, soldiers wait and militia watch. The Rwandan refugees that the television showed massing in Goma, Zaire, last summer remained encamped there for Christmas. Although the country's holocaust year is over, the burden of 1994 has not been lifted. Rwandans are no longer dying en masse, but they and their country live shadowed by violence and death, and the conditions that sparked 100 days of genocide and four years of civil war still smoulder.

In the bloody days of May, before the world's media noticed Rwanda, an aid worker in the huge Benaco camp in Tanzania faxed headquarters the question: "What has to happen inside Rwanda before the outside world will do something?" Months later that is still the question. Just as the killings were not checked, threats to peace are not checked. Extremists wielding machetes and exerting mass coercion have shattered the Rwandan nation. To simply tend wounds and expect healing in a body so broken is no substitute for curative intervention.

After natural disasters steps are often taken that address the event's cause and its effects--often with outside help. Dams are built and dikes erected when flood waters recede. The same holds for many manmade disasters. But when the origins of disaster are political and the effects are felt on a national scale, and if the disaster has overwhelmed a country before and could well do so again, then the community of nation states is often simply helpless or unresponsive. Afghans, Angolans, Bosnians and Liberians could testify to this truth along with Rwandans; aid agencies too can provide corroboration.

Emergency relief for Rwanda has been forthcoming. There is food, water, shelter and medical care enough "to continue to help the refugees not to die," according to a United Nations refugee official in Goma. A staggering 3.3 million people--half of the Rwandan people--were fed by the UN World Food Program in November. Scores of aid agencies apply the their own considerable resources and work under UN contract as well.

Amid the welter of agencies and activity, a new venture is even making ecumenical history. The Lutheran World Federation, the World Council of Churches, their member churches and related aid agencies are all working together under the banner of Church World Action/Rwanda. In Zaire, Burundi, Tanzania and Rwanda the group provides relief to refugees, rehabilitation for people who return home, community support in camps and villages and initiatives for peace and reconciliation. The cooperative program is staffed by Africans and non-Africans. Its member agencies have been on the scene since early April. Yet the members of this joint action now find themselves involved in a situation whose outcome will not be determined by the quantity and quality of their aid but by developments--or lack of developments--in the political sphere.

Unlike short-term emergency and humanitarian aid, the help required to run the new Rwandan government is slow in coming and limited. A UN Trust Fund established in May for longer-term assistance held only $200,000 until late in 1994. Only recently did donor countries pay off Rwanda's arrears to the World Bank, releasing some $170 million in credits for an impoverished government.

Least evident are measures that would help secure peace in the region. Initiatives are stalled at UN headquarters. The UN discussions, and the tardy half-measures that have been taken, reveal how the rights of a small nation compare with the interests of large ones. In November the secretary general proposed that a military force protect or even liberate refugees from former Rwandan government forces. The plan faltered for lack of support. In December the UN High Commissioner for Refugees announced a lower-cost gamble: repatriating refugees using Zaire's unpaid army as protection--the same army that recently has been chasing refugees out of local villages, where some have friends and relatives, into the already overcrowded camps. …

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