TOPICS > Politics

Conflict in Central Africa

December 24, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: In the spirit of the holidays, Marie Rose Malik is trying to remember how to play the “First Noel.” (music in background) It was long ago and far away that Marie Rose Malik, now in her thirties, first took piano lessons in a place called Rwanda, a place she remembers for its beauty and its community.

MARIE ROSE MELIQUE: When I think about it, I remember also in the old days, Rwanda is representative of Africa, and Rwanda–when other man took power–when he took power, people did what they called convened with the world, convened to work together, so Rwanda was developing quickly, quickly, quickly.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What did it look like? What do you remember it looking like, the physical place?

MARIE ROSE MELIQUE: The physical place, Rwanda was looking like Europe.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Give me specifics.

MARIE ROSE MELIQUE: Rwanda was a thing of beauty. It had green grass, and it had good production.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: It was a beautiful place.

MARIE ROSE MELIQUE: It was a beautiful place. It was a beautiful place.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But that Rwanda, like Marie Rose Malik’s piano lessons, is fading fast in her memory, overshadowed by a long arc of tragedy that cuts wide and deep and reaches as far away as the quiet pleasant Maryland suburb near Washington, D.C., where sometimes, but only sometimes, Marie Rose can forget. But for each moment that allows her to forget, with her husband and their three children, there are many more that make her remember, like the relentless television coverage of refugees like these.

SPOKESMAN: The last week has seen more than a thousand new arrivals.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: They are Hutus, who fled Rwanda after a Hutu-led genocidal campaign against the Tutsi minority in 1994. When the surviving Tutsis rested control of the country two years later, fear of reprisal drove even innocent Hutus out of the country into Zaire. Some of them are members of Marie Rose Malik’s family, and she has no idea where they are today.

MARIE ROSE MELIQUE: I look totally–the Rwanda government–I don’t know where they are–in the bushes, I don’t know.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The current crisis that has produced these encounters are the refugees in Central Africa has deep roots and many causes, but much of it stems from the problems of minority rule at the expense of the majority. It is the problem that grips the entire Great Lakes region, from the giant heart of the region known as Zaire, a country about 1/4 the size of the United States, to the two smaller neighboring nations, Burundi, slightly larger than Maryland, and Rwanda, slightly smaller than Maryland. In Rwanda and Burundi, the problem is expressed in the relationship between the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsis. Marie Rose Malik remembers it well because she, like many of her countrymen, is both Hutu and Tutsi.

MARIE ROSE MELIQUE: Father was a Hutu, and my mom was a Tutsi. And they both come from Rwanda, and my mom come from the chief of the Tutsis. I can say come from the royal family, my mom, and my dad come from the Hutu side. My father, as a Hutu–

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Malik remembers the history of both peoples, when they both had kingdoms in Rwandan. The Hutus, who arrived in the region first between five hundred to a thousand B.C., lived by planting and harvesting. Their large family groups were little kingdoms unto themselves, often located on a hilltop or mountainside. The Tutsis, also known as Watusis, were nomads, who arrived later, probably from Ethiopia. They had one king who ruled over a much larger expanse of territory. Zairian Professor George Izangola argues there is basically no ethnic difference between Hutu and Tutsi and that to the extent there is a distinction, it is one of caste.

PROFESSOR GEORGE NZONGOLA: In Rwanda, the Tutsi and the Hutu are the same people. They are all people–large grouping or communities which go from seven regions of Cameroon to Uganda–all the way to South Africa, in the same culture. People used to be Tutsi or Hutu, depending on the proximity to the king. If you were close to the king, you owned wealth, you owned a lot of cattle, you are a Tutsi. If you are far away from the king, you are a cultivator, you don’t own much cattle, you are a Hutu. And with that, an individual could be a Tutsi or Hutu.

ARA OTUDU: Is it true that throughout the ages they fought each other and killed each other? No–

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Olara Otunno, a former Ugandan diplomat, heads the International Peace Academy, an independent, non-partisan institute that promotes prevention and settlement of armed conflict between states. He’s been intimately involve in peacemaking in the region.

OLARA OTUNNO: And those there were deep inequities within these societies, in fact, the two communities lived side by side with each other.

MARIE ROSE MELIQUE: My brother married a Tutsi. All my brothers have Tutsi women because Rwanda lived really in harmony, for Hutu marrying Tutsi, Tutsi marrying Hutu, there was no inequity.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Still, periodic violence, some started by Tutsis, some by Hutus, mars the landscape of the region’s history. The Tutsi minority almost always ruled in pre-colonial times. And while tensions existed, they were contained.

OLARA OTUNNO: As you know, the traditional leaders in both countries, the monarchies in both countries–both of which were Tutsi monarchies–managed this relationship a good deal better. They had sense of creating balance, a sense of reaching out, a sense of–both Rwanda and Burundi.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Brian Urquhart, a former U.N. Secretary General with past experience in the region, adds that even when tribes fought, there were limits to the violence until the colonial period.

BRIAN URQUHART: There had always been military expeditions, wars between tribes, and the warrior tradition really demanded that, which was more or less kind of self-controlling in a way, when you didn’t have serious weapons, and you didn’t have a lot of political support from other places.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: It was in 1885 that the major European powers met in Berlin and dibbied up Africa. Rwanda-Urundi went to Germany, which established a policy of ruling indirectly through local authority. During World War I, Belgium’s stronger colonial army took Rwanda-Urundi from Germany forces, ruling at first under a League of Nation’s mandate, then as a U.N. trustee. With Tutsis in control through their king, their power was enhanced as the Belgians institutionalized inequality, as one writer put it.

OLARA OTUNNO: This was an extension of European power politics. They were carving up another continent for the benefit of five or six colonial powers for largely economical prestige reasons, with no knowledge or regard at all for the people who lived there.

MARIE ROSE MELIQUE: –the whole world–the one who was having all the opportunity during that time–the colonial–they were born to rule.

OLARA OTUNNO: They coopted Tutsis in both countries to work with the colonial power to rule both countries and gave a stronger sense of exclusion and oppression to the Hutus.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: In the late ’50s/early ’60s, independence loomed large all over the country, and Angola argued that during the time–

OLARA OTUNNO: –in Africa–with Africa nationalism began a certain pull. The Tutsis, because of their better education, were in a–they told the Hutu, well, look, you want independence, but after us, you go and tell the Tutsis–the rulers–do you want that? The Tutsis, well, hell, no. Now, you know, the–

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: In 1962, Rwanda-Urundi gained independence and became the separate states of Rwanda and Burundi. In Burundi, the Tutsi minority took power. In Rwanda, it was the Hutu majority. Arguably, the first genocide was by the Hutu majority against the powerful Tutsi minority in Rwanda in 1964. But it soon followed in Burundi that the Tutsi minority unleashed a pogrom against its Hutu majority. This wave of killing would continue on and off for the next three decades. Periodic attempts at power-sharing were made, but no doable representative governments were created. This violence-filled vacuum had extremist elements from both sides. And many argue that this accounts for the latest, most virulent phase of the conflict. Chester Crocker served as assistant secretary for African affairs from 1981 to ’89 during the Reagan administration.

CHESTER CROCKER: There’s an assumption when we talk about ethnic conflict in places like Rwanda or, for that matter, Belfast or Bosnia that people are genetically born to hate each other. And I have trouble with that. I think that a lot of the specific conditions we have to look at closely to understand what leads to the active violent phase of ethnic conflict.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: One condition that may have helped ignite the violence was new movement in both Rwanda and Burundi towards a political solution to their conflict. The plane carrying both countries’ presidents was shot down in Rwanda, presumably by extremists opposed to the peace process. Following their deaths, the latest Hutu-led genocide started. Crocker cites the Hutu extremist use of hate radio in Rwanda for escalating the conflict into genocide.

CHESTER CROCKER: With hind sight, of course, there were the bad guys were plotting, who were plotting a campaign of going to get Tutsis in every part of the country in Rwanda and planning the way they were going to do it through the use of radio and other kinds of communication techniques to unleash this awful tragedy on the country.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The other volatile element in the mix was a population that had more than doubled in the last decade from 400 people per square mile.

BRIAN ATWOOD: The result of that were land disputes, not between Tutsis and Hutis exclusively, but between Hutus–among Hutus as well.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Brian Atwood heads the U.S. Agency for International Development.

BRIAN ATWOOD: You then had the problem of being able to produce enough food. This was a country that was fertile and should have produced enough food for its own population, but because of environmental deterioration, that became a problem as well. And you put superimposed on that, extremist elements that in some cases get ahold of parts of the government, and you had, as a result of this convulsion, you had about half the population either dying as the result of genocide or displaced or in refugee status–situation. It’s the worst situation since the Holocaust.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Among the tens of thousands of victims of the genocides of Rwanda was Marie Rose Malik’s brother, the governor of a province. He was Hutu, and she says he was killed in 1992 by Tutsi-led extremists who specifically targeted Hutu intellectuals and moderates.

MARIE ROSE MELIQUE: I was crying all night. In the morning I went to work and I went to work, I told my supervisor that my brother had just been murdered.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: A sister and two sons, age 18 and 19, were also killed. In the most recent genocide another sister, a gynecologist, escaped, only to die later after working with other refugees in a camp near the border.

MARIE ROSE MELIQUE: She got the malaria. She didn’t have anybody who was taking of her, and she was hospitalized, without any medicine, and she was paralyzed, and she died.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Marie Rose Malik has no idea what has happened to still another sister, the tall Tutsi-looking one, or family members from the refugee camps. There have been no contacts for months. In November, when Zairian rebels attacked the Hutu militias in the camps, Hutu refugees broke away from the camps, where the Hutu extremists have held them hostage to their ambition. Some refugees fled into the dense Zairian rain forest. Others took their chances of returning to a beckoning Rwanda, as the post-genocide government once again called for reconciliation over retribution. In Burundi, military strong man Pierre Bojoja maintained the control he seized in an earlier coup, despite a boycott and calls by regional leaders and others for a return to civilian rule. Close watchers of the region warned that violence could reignite at any point, any place, until the root causes of the problem are addressed.

OLARA OTUNNO: Why not address the issue of how you share power, real power sharing, how you make both communities feel included, how you reassure that the community, the minority doesn’t mean that they can be wiped out–how do you assure the Hutu that they are secure in both countries, will share in the military, will share the land, will share the education, and have economic and social opportunities within their country, that they will not be a second class in their own country. And one has to address the root causes that feed from this.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Meanwhile, Marie Rose Malik is struggling with how to make her children understand those mistakes and teach them a lesson she learned many years ago back home in a different Rwanda.

MARIE ROSE MELIQUE: I’ll be able to make them understand in the United States it has been 200 years ago, before–people died. And those people also, they are fighting, they are dying. One day they will come, and they will get along with each other.