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Violence and Unrest in Central Africa

November 22, 1996

Two years ago more than a million Hutu refugees fled Rwanda in a panicked mass migration that captured the world's attention. The Hutus, who had carried out a campaign of genocide against the rival Tutsi tribe, feared reprisals from the new Tutsi government. This month the world watched as 500,000 of those refugees streamed back into Rwanda to escape fighting in Zaire. So ended yet another episode in the increasingly long history of tension and warfare between the Hutus and the Tutsis -- and of the West's equivocation about whether to intervene. If history is any guide, there's more trouble to come. Several past Atlantic articles help put the most recent crisis in historical perspective and offer broad ways of contemplating policies of assistance and intervention.

In an "Atlantic Report" on Rwanda published in June, 1964, the Atlantic editors traced how the Tutsi minority came to govern the Hutu majority through a system of feudalism dating back four centuries -- until the Hutus revolted in 1959, killing 10,000 Tutsis and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee to neighboring countries. The authors argued that if the outside world did not provide aid to Rwanda to help the country develop its economy and break out of a cycle of tribal violence, "Rwanda is likely to remain on the world's conscience."

In "Rwanda and Burundi" (September, 1973), Stanley Meisler reported on another chapter of ethnic violence between the two peoples in which the Tutsi government of Burundi responded to an attempted coup by killing more than 100,000 Hutus, wiping out those with any wealth, education, or government experience. In Rwanda the Hutus retaliated by killing some Tutsis and forcing others out of universities. Then, as in 1994, when up to a million Tutsis were massacred by Hutus, the outside world seemed paralyzed. Meisler wrote:

One of the strangest sides to all the bloodshed between Tutsis and Hutus has been the feeble reaction of the rest of the world. Last year's slaughter in Burundi must rank with the most terrible in history. Yet Christian missionaries kept quiet or muted their concern. Most foreign governments, including the United States, refused to protest in public at the time.

While tensions between Hutus and Tutsis created the recent refugee crisis, the civil unrest caused by Zairean rebels trying to overthrow Mobutu Sese Seko was the spark. Bill Berkeley's "Zaire: An African Horror Story" (August, 1993) explored how, through a regime of corruption, violence, and shrewd manipulation, Mobutu has managed to keep a grip on power since he first took over Zaire, with the help of the Central Intelligence Agency, in the 1960s. He has maintained his leadership despite (or perhaps thanks to) a state of near anarchy in which inflation has reached more than 6,000 percent and unemployment has stood at 80 percent.

Buffeted by history's changing winds, bereft of his Western backing, embattled by riotous troops and pro-democracy forces, and squeezed for cash to keep afloat his notoriously greedy regime, Mobutu was being tested as never before. . . . Despite mounting anarchy and economic chaos, Mobutu was confounding widespread predictions of his imminent demise. I wanted to know how he did it.

In his widely discussed article "The Coming Anarchy" (January, 1994), Robert Kaplan described how Third World scenes such as the recent ones from Rwanda and Zaire -- tribal warfare, refugee migrations, spreading disease, and weak central government -- all suggest what will visit the rest of the world in the twenty-first century. In "Proportionalism" (August, 1996) Kaplan responded to critics, many of whom accused him of doomsaying, by sketching out a policy for assistance to the Third World based on a philosophy of limiting our foreign aid and humanitarian intervention to cases where we are sure it will do some good and where our goals can be easily accomplished. We will have to make some painful choices, Kaplan argued, as we are faced with diminished coffers for foreign aid and ever more places where that aid is needed.

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Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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