U.S. Callousness and Mozambique Massacres

New York Times op-ed

News of two massacres in Mozambique in the last two months, in which more than 400 people were killed, seems to have made little impression on the American public. Had the incidents occurred in a refugee camp in Lebanon or a village in Central America, they surely would have received more attention.

Unless the American people start paying attention to this region and urge key members of Congress to stop promoting the rebels who have carried out the massacres, the killings are likely to continue.

The attacks are the latest of a series carried out by a group called Renamo, a Portuguese acronym for Mozambique National Resistance. Renamo has an office in Washington at the Heritage Foundation headquarters, and it enjoys the support of key Republicans in Congress. Its two most notable backers are Senator Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina, and Bob Dole, a leading Republican Presidential candidate.

Renamo has terrorized Mozambique for 10 years, aiming almost solely at civilian targets, attempting with only some success to undermine support for the Marxist Mozambican Government. Its victims have been randomly selected villagers of the poor and desperate country that is trying to achieve stability long enough to make economic progress. Although Renamo's victims are not passengers on Western airlines, and the slaughter takes place not in European cities but in the remote southern African bush, surely this brutality must fall into even the most narrow definition of terrorism.

Senator Helms callously asserted that reports of the first killings were ''a clear setup'' by the Mozambican Government. Mr. Helms's statement implied that the reports were either fabricated by the Government or, if the attack had actually taken place, it was the work of the Government in an attempt to discredit the rebels. But Renamo needs no discrediting in Mozambique.

Eyewitness reports from non-Government observers left little doubt that the massacre was the act of Renamo. One witness told reporters that 40 to 50 Renamo members walked through town ''shooting every person and building in sight.'' That Jesse Helms can sit in his office in Washington and dismiss these accounts is vulgar and arrogant.

The rebels have carried out similar attacks in the past, and they usually cut off the ears of those they don't kill. Renamo has also kidnapped women and children, forcibly conscripting young boys into its armed bands.

For every report of a slaughter of hundreds, there are dozens of massacres involving 30, 40 or 50 people that never reach the American media.

Yet Renamo continues to garner an element of respectability in Washington because its leaders say it is fighting Communists. To simply label them anti-Communist is to excuse the madness and banditry. Renamo members are called ''bandidos armados'' - ''armed bandits'' - by the civilian population of Mozambique.

When Melissa Wells, the Reagan Administration's nominee for Ambassador to Mozambique, referred to Renamo as ''bandits,'' it prompted an angry letter from 28 Republican Senators, led by Mr. Dole and Mr. Helms. Senator Helms has led the fight to block her nomination and has sworn not to approve her until the Reagan Administration officially recognizes Renamo.

The right wing of the Republican Party has found an issue on which to oppose the Reagan Administration, taking a stand in support of the only ''anti-Communist'' group that the Administration has seen fit not to support.

But it is wrong to assert that the group has any legitimacy as an opposition movement. Perhaps Senator Dole's support of Renamo is wishful thinking. He badly wants a foreign policy issue on which he can distinguish himself from the Reagan Administration.

For Mr. Dole, Mozambique has become a way to gain political support from the far right. It has allowed him to attract conservatives without alienating moderates for whom Mozambique is not a priority. That he can ignore the fact that the group he supports commits atrocities gives strength to the argument that his position is motivated by political calculations.

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