AS I prepare to leave for a new assignment - as a nurse for the International Rescue Committee in Goma, Zaire - I know what I will tell the Rwandan refugees: ``Go home. Go quickly. There are good things happening there and returning is the best hope for you and your family.''
One month ago I traveled inside Rwanda on a mission for the US-based Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children. I met with dozens of women working to rebuild their country. I traveled in rebel-held territory because the only escort available to me was through the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Mine was a humanitarian mission, to determine what was happening to the women and children.
I found a surprising thing: Although terrible destruction and death were everywhere, there were also signs of hope.
Before international help arrived, the RPF had methodically searched the countryside and had rescued people hiding in the marshes, the fields, and the hills where they had fled from the militia's deadly rampage. The RPF took survivors to the towns that the rebels had won. Schools, churches, and vacated homes were converted into shelters for thousands of displaced persons. Some were even able to return to their own homes.
Women are playing an important role in this effort. The Women's Organization of the RPF was placing orphaned and abandoned children with families or in orphanages. Rwandan women lawyers, nurses, teachers, and other professionals helped coordinate their activities with those of the international relief agencies. Since 1990 the women's group has been working with women throughout Rwanda, promoting health, education, and income-generating projects.
When the war broke out in April, members of the women's group devoted their energies to crisis intervention and humanitarian assistance. They called upon the international community to help them. When I visited, they were working in conjunction with international agencies to place abandoned children and orphans with families, to set up hospitals, and to bury the dead.
Most important, the RPF refused to discuss ethnicity and provided humanitarian assistance to anyone who needed help. When I asked whether there were difficulties between the Hutus and Tutsis in these areas, the women told me, ``Please do not ask about this. We discourage this form of thinking in order to begin the healing process of our people.''
In the town of Rutare, 105,000 displaced people sought shelter in June. International relief organizations provided health care, food, shelter, and sanitation services. The RPF coordinated activities and provided security. I saw this humanitarian activity taking place in much of the rebel-held territory.
The United States and the international community must build on these efforts in order to persuade the refugees to return home. Although international assistance is critical to the life-saving operations on the borders, the majority of funds must be devoted to programs inside Rwanda that will improve people's lives in a lasting way. Roads must be repaired, houses rebuilt, and most important, families reunited. The Women's Organization of the RPF and other women's groups have much to offer and should be included in all relief and development projects.
One of the first steps for the international community is to end the current crisis by shutting down Radio Mille Collines, the propaganda station of the former government of Rwanda, which exhorted people to leave their homes and villages. While I was in Rwanda last month, Radio Mille Collines was inciting thousands to slaughter their Tutsi neighbors, saying the Tutsis were evil.
For the past two weeks these radio broadcasts have convinced the population that the RPF is set on revenge and will murder and torture all Hutus. This misinformation must be countered with radio broadcasts from credible sources, such as the United Nations, providing news about what is really happening inside Rwanda. The refugees should know the truth - that there is no fighting inside Rwanda or revenge-killing by the RPF.
When I arrive in Zaire, I will work day and night to care for the sick and dying. But I am convinced that the only hope for the refugees is for them to return home.
The US and the international community can help by providing the funds, logistical assistance, and security needed by the people of Rwanda so that - together with international relief agencies - they can rebuild their country. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.