CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Central Africa's biggest and potentially richest country, Zaire, is teetering on the brink of disintegration. Nearly a million thirsty and starving refugees are on the move. Rebels are in control of the Eastern towns, and there is growing dissent in the rest of the country.
Much of the turmoil has been created by tribal warfare on the border with neighboring Rwanda and Burundi. The fighting stems from a decade-long power struggle between two groups: the Hutus and the Tutsis. In 1994, when the Hutu tribe controlled Rwanda, they launched an attempt to eradicate the rival minority Tutsis.
There was massive bloodshed. An estimated 1/2 million Tutsis were slaughtered in the conflict. But Tutsi fighters there eventually overthrew the Hutu government and took control of the country. Many Hutus then fled to Zaire and settled in refugee camps. The camps also became a haven for Hutu guerrillas to launch attacks against their former homeland. Many of the Hutu refugees are now afraid to return to Rwanda, fearing retaliation by the Tutsi-led government.
Rwanda's Tutsi government has tried to persuade the Hutus to return, promising to undertake the enormous task of providing food and shelter. But the Tutsis are also screening the refugees to capture those involved in the 1994 massacre of Tutsis. In late October, a new layer of the conflict erupted. The government of Zaire began a campaign to expel its own Tutsi residents, who had lived in Eastern Zaire for 200 years.
The Zairean Tutsis mobilized a fighting force to attack the Zairean army. They seized two provinces and the area around three sites of major UN camps for Hutu refugees. Despite a declared cease-fire, the fighting continued. Hundreds of died. The wreckage of war is evident, and aid warehouses have been looted. Zaire's Tutsi rebels have pledged to continue fighting until Zaire's dictator, Mobutu Zaseseko is ousted. He has been sequestered in his villa on the Riviera receiving cancer treatments since the crisis began.
The men running Zaire in Mobutu's absence have rejected any American or European role in a peacekeeping force. They contend that only soldiers from neighboring African nations should take part in any relief effort.
The most pressing need is to get food and water to the millions of displaced people. Today, some relief arrived.