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COULD WORLD HAVE STOPPED THE SLAUGHTER?

Like the numb and hollow-eyed gaze of the emaciated survivors of Treblinka or the mountains of skulls stacked up by Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, the shriek of pain of the people of Rwanda has seared itself onto the world's conscience.

These are harrowing images of spring and summer: blood-smeared churches stacked with machete-slashed bodies as though they were so much deadwood; weakened children stumbling and dying in the mud as they were trampled underfoot by the swiftest flood tide of refugees in modern times; stinking, teeming refugee camps at Goma and Bukavu, still sumps of disease and want and fear.Along with these appalling images come the questions, nagging and disturbing because they mock our belief and hope that on the threshold of the 21th century, human beings have learned to live in a kinder and more civilized world.

Did the genocide of Rwanda, the organized, wholesale slaughter of something like a half-million people, and maybe twice that many, have to happen?

Could the outside world and the United Nations have done more to stop it? If so, why didn't they?

Finally, could Rwanda's nightmare recur, if not here, then elsewhere?

"We've been so late, it's not funny," said Canadian Maj. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, the top U.N. military officer in Rwanda during the bloodbath.

One potent, decisive force urging delay in international intervention was the United States, with its newfound caution about U.N. involvement in countries' internal unrest.

But in truth, there were few voices heard in opposition to the U.S. counsel against precipitate action - few, at least, with the will and means to back up their arguments with solid and substantial commitments of their own.

U.N. peacekeepers in Rwanda who warned early of impending catastrophe found themselves restricted from acting by the language of U.N. Security Council resolutions produced in this context of caution and compromise. Even after the storm broke, the U.N. reaction was to retreat, to reduce rather than increase its forces in the riven country.

The U.N. Security Council on May 17 authorized a peacekeeping force of 5,500 soldiers, but as of Friday, 4,150 were on the ground.

"We have countries offering to send an infantry battalion. Then we say, `Anybody want to equip them?' We are waiting for the phone to ring," said Canadian Maj. Jean-Guy Plante, spokesman for the U.N. Assistance Mission in Rwanda. "Of course, it is now too late to stop the massacres anyway."

A U.N. commission created in July to determine formally whether acts of genocide and large-scale violations of human rights occurred in Rwanda, as a first step toward identifying and punishing the mass murderers, has called on the world community to supply 200 forensic medical experts and investigators. At last count, four were in the country.

The members of the commission itself, distinguished jurists from Togo, Guinea and Mali, spent only a week here, then left, saying they might be back later.

What is particularly tragic is that as long ago as Oct. 5, 1993, the United States and other members of the U.N. Security Council, in its Resolution 872, ordered the creation of a "peacekeeping mission" in Rwanda "in the shortest possible time."

The mission's goal was to aid in the establishment of the coalition government and pluralistic, non-ethnic constitution mandated by the Arusha Accord of Aug. 4, 1993, that had, it seemed, put an end to a withering 3-year-old civil war between the Rwandan government and the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front army led by returnees from exile.

But as early as last December and January of this year, U.N. military observers who arrived here got wind of activities that presaged a possible bloodbath in this verdant, beautiful country in the highlands of central Africa.

The spark for the explosion came when a plane carrying Rwanda's president, Juvenal Habariyamana, and his counterpart from neighboring Burundi, Cyprian Ntayamira, crashed April 6 on approach to Kigali airport after apparently being hit by a missile. Both leaders were killed.

Commanded by the hard-line Hutu leaders who succeeded Habariyamana, Rwandan soldiers, members of the ruling party's youth wing, the Interahamwe, and ordinary Hutus embarked on a massacre of their opponents and members of the Tutsi minority.

Faced with barbarism on a massive scale and renewed hostilities between Rwanda's civil war foes, the Security Council decided April 21 to slash the number of its peacekeepers here rather than reinforce them.

"We knew places badly needed our protection, but there was nothing we could do," said Plante, who arrived in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, six days after the massacres began. "With 450 men, we had our hands full. If we had had the 5,500, instead of protecting 18,000 to 20,000 refugees in the city, we could have protected maybe 100,000 to 200,000.

"We could have gone out to the churches where we knew people were trapped," Plante said. "We would have been able to protect them and deliver them food.

"When people say, `Why didn't you go into the massacres and separate the Tutsis and the Hutus' . . . that wasn't our mandate," Plante said.