IN THE FIRST phase of relief for Rwanda, the desperate need was to pour in food, water, medicine and emergency services. This phase, though launched late and far from complete, is saving lives. Already, however, a more demanding second phase is upon the helping nations: to restore conditions that will draw the millions of displaced and exiled home. The problem is not just logistical -- rebuilding an eviscerated infrastructure practically from scratch. For Americans it is political -- summoning the resolve to tackle a mission that inevitably recalls Somalia. There, an American-led humanitarian success became a "nation-building" fiasco. The shadow of Somalia now falls over Washington.

This should not be, for Rwanda is no Somalia. Unlike Somalia, which had factions and tribes fighting (still) for power, Rwanda now has a single victorious force and the basis of a national political process reaching across tribal lines. Unlike Somalia, Rwanda does not threaten military defiance to friendly outside intervenors. Special factors brought about the casualties and humiliation that undid American policy in the one place. The other place is different.

These considerations should govern the key choice now lying before the American government of where to center its relief operations. Somalia-haunted officials would base them in Uganda's Entebbe or in Zaire's Goma, where a million or more Rwandan refugees sit. But Entebbe, though big and safe, is 300 miles from the refugee sites. To provide the requisite airport facilities, connecting roads and supply depots either there or in Goma would disperse resources and prop up the local strongmen. By contrast, to fit out the Rwandan capital of Kigali, where the United Nations is already flying, would make logistical sense and would light a beacon to call home the millions of uprooted Rwandans.

Rwanda, scene of massive massacres before cholera started felling survivors, is now a wasteland -- but not entirely. Fall crops remain to be harvested if farmers can return quickly. Reconstruction of destroyed bridges, schools and markets offers WPA-like job opportunities.

Such projects raise suspicions of "mission creep." But it is not enough to purify the water and bury the dead. It is necessary to help rebuild communities so as to hand off national revival to the international banks. It helps to keep in mind that the condition from which Rwanda is being saved is not just a spell of bad luck but genocide. The United States has an obligation to join others in enabling survivors to redeem their lives.