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Africa: Analysis From Washington -- The Forgotten Genocide

Washington, 6 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Seven years ago today (6 April), the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were killed in an airplane crash, an event that triggered the killing of more than 500,000 people in those countries.

And that genocide in turn has both contributed to instability throughout much of Central Africa and highlighted the difficulties the international community faces in attempting to respond to such crises.

On 6 April 1994, the plane crash which claimed the lives of the two presidents -- Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi and Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda -- ignited the already tense situation between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority there. Not strictly ethnic communities, these two groups were treated very differently by the European colonial powers who played one off against the other. And the subsequent inversion of their respective status after independence further heightened tensions between them.

Almost overnight after the death of the two presidents, the Hutus, armed with sticks, machetes, and a limited number of guns, began to systematically kill the Tutsis. In the face of these actions and despite a plea from the head of the United Nations observer mission on the ground for assistance, the international community withdrew its limited force, and the massacres continued largely unabated for three months.

This act of genocide immediately changed the political situation in both Rwanda and Burundi. But more than that, it triggered events which have now destabilized much of Africa from the central Great Lakes region where those two countries are located through the Congo to the continent's west coast.

That happened in the following way. First of all, hundreds of thousands of people fled from the site of the massacres, creating refugee pressures on neighboring countries and prompting the international community to launch a humanitarian assistance effort.

But because international bodies often were unable to distinguish between genuine refugees and active fighters, the international community found itself in the unenviable situation of feeding not just the hungry but also the militant. And the militants in turn were often able to intimidate both refugees and neighboring groups and thereby gain almost autonomous power within these states.

Then some of the militants who had first fled with the genuine refugees linked up with secessionist and other oppositionist groups, first leading to a civil war in the Congo and then to a repetition of the same process of refugee flows, international humanitarian assistance, and more violence against virtually all neighboring states.

That pattern has led some governments to conclude that humanitarian assistance may be unintentionally contributing to the problem, but in reality, the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi and the impact that has had across the African continent highlights what can happen when the leaders of the international community decide that they do not want to get involved in what they define at first not as a genocide but as "an internal conflict."

Coincidentally, one year after the plane crash, the first genocide trials began in Kigali, Rwanda, against some of the 30,000 Hutus then being detained on charges of killing Tutsis. And four years later, then U.S. President Bill Clinton told the people of the region that the international community had failed to intervene in a timely and appropriate manner and that he hoped that it would not repeat that error in the future.

Such a commitment could help forestall future tragedies, particularly if it is combined with an understanding that what looks at first like a small and relatively unimportant event can lead to an immense political and human tragedy with terrible consequences both for its victims and for those who do not imagine that they are going to be affected at all.

But seven years from the beginning of one of the largest genocides documented since the end of World War II, reports from across Africa show that the failure to move quickly and effectively against those who are prepared to use genocide to advance their causes will ultimately embroil not only the killers and killed but the world at large as well.