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African leaders must not forget lessons of Rwanda



Published: Wed, June 29, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Between 300,000 and 1.5 million poverty-stricken citizens of the southern African nation of Zimbabwe have lost their homes -- more accurately, shanties -- and livelihoods as a result of the government's "Drive Out Trash" campaign. Yet, the African Union and South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki, refuse to condemn what they term the "internal affairs" of that country.

We would urge the leaders of the African Union and President Mbeki to watch the movie "Hotel Rwanda," which memorializes the ethnic genocide that occurred in the central African nation in 1994. Almost 1 million men, women and children were slaughtered because the world turned a blind eye to what began as a clash between two groups, the Hutu and the Tutsi.

It was only after the blood finally stopped flowing and the body count was complete that the mea culpas and the expressions of outrage were heard. If only we had paid attention when the clash was little more than a skirmish.

And yet it seems the lessons of Rwanda are lost on the people who matter the most, African leaders such as Mbeki.

Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, has brought the nation to its economic knees through widespread government corruption, mismanagement and the shortsighted policy of confiscating farms from white owners and giving them to unqualified blacks who pledge their allegiance to him. That has resulted in nationwide food shortages, which, in turn, have trigged massive starvation, especially among the poor.

Children's deaths

Mugabe's latest campaign is simply a continuation of his plan to rid the nation of his detractors and ordinary citizens who support the opposition parties. Starting May 19, police have torched and bulldozed tens of thousands of shacks, street stalls and vegetable gardens planted by the urban poor. At least six people have died, including two children crushed under collapsing walls, and two more children and a woman who died of pneumonia after being left exposed in the winter cold. A man committed suicide.

The "Drive Out Trash" campaign has also forced 300,000 children to quit school.

In the face of such human suffering, the "internal affairs" of a country must become the affairs of the world. For the African Union to be more concerned about offending a brutal dictator than preventing another genocide simply goes to show what an ineffective organization it is and why the United Nations, led by the United States and Britain, should intervene. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has dispatched a seven-member delegation headed by his envoy, Anna Tibaijuka, to investigate Operation Murambatsvina -- "Drive Out Trash" -- and to determine the extent of the suffering that has been inflicted on innocent people.

The delegation was to meet with Mugabe, members of his government, legislators and the opposition parties and was to tour various cities and towns.

We believe Tibaijuka should also talk to Zimbabwe's Roman Catholic Archbishop Pius Ncube, who has called for the president's arrest and prosecution. Ncube alleged last week that the government planned to drive disaffected urban voters back to the famine-hit countryside for political re-education. That's buzz word for mass murder.

The warning signs are clear and unless the international community acts, there could another movie in the not too distant future about the massacre of the poor.




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