TAKE-OFF

Manston, a quiet village on the eastern tip of Kent a couple of miles from Ramsgate, is an unlikely setting for one of the biggest emergency aid operations ever mounted in this country. It is from here that the bulk of the supplies are being airlifted to Goma and the Rwandan refugee camps. Since last week, more than 40 aid flights have taken off from the single 9,029ft runway at the grandiosely titled Kent International Airport (no, I'd never heard of it, either.)

Approached through archetypal English villages glorying in such names as St Nicholas at Wade and Dent-de-Lion, KIA looks like something out of Trumpton. A handful of private two-seaters speckle the airfield. You park on a grassy verge in front of the terminal, next to a field where a farmer is calmly ploughing his fields. It may not be Heathrow, but it provides easy access for the aid lorries thundering in from all over the country. Open a gate and you are on the runway.

Right by the terminal stands a gleaming chartered MK Cargo Airlines Douglas DC8, its doors gaping like the whale waiting for Jonah. Fresh in from Luxembourg, the plane has recently been used for tours by Tina Turner and Chris de Burgh. For the 12-hour flight to Goma, the aid organisations have mostly been using monster Russian transportation aircraft that have flooded the market since the end of the Cold War.

Despite the heat, shirtless workers are buzzing round the warehouse like bees at a hive. It's 3pm, and they are hurrying to fill the plane's 36-ton capacity with the contents of a complete field hospital for 40,000 cholera victims before the scheduled midnight take-off. The British Red Cross, responsible for this flight, is sending the works: tents, generators, water-treatment equipment, buckets, mops, J-Cloths, bin liners and brooms. Because the population of Goma has gone up 800 per cent in the past week, the town has no resources and the plane has to bring in absolutely everything - down to the nails that secure broom-heads to handles.

Forty KIA staff are busy on site. The air crew and six aid workers, meanwhile, are resting up before the flight in a nearby hotel. The whole operation, costing a cool pounds 125,000, is run with military precision from a mobile office next to the warehouse by Mike Goodhand (was a charity worker ever better named?), head of the British Red Cross logistics department.

A gaunt man who looks as if he is suffering from sleep deprivation, Mr Goodhand has recently been doing 20-hour days. Attempts to discuss his job are regularly interrupted by delivery drivers wanting their dockets signed and phone calls from the press, suppliers and head office. At one stage, a semi-naked fork-lift driver appears at the door with a question about how many cubic metres 200 camp beds will occupy. The sound of the Queen and David Bowie song, 'Under Pressure', wafts in from the truck radio.

Fuelled by a diet of chocolate milk, Marlboro Lights, and Cornish pasties, Mr Goodhand is inspired by the public's response. On Monday night, within 90 minutes of News At Ten's film from the refugee camps on the Zairean border, the British public had donated pounds 750,000. 'In the last few days, the money's come in at an extraordinary rate. Maybe it's because most of us have been thirsty at one time or another. People can relate to that. We say to people - in the nicest possible way - we don't want your blankets or your tins of beans, we want your cash. A 20-kilo food parcel would cost pounds 26 in Sainsbury's; we can buy exactly the same parcel from a supplier at pounds 8.40. Money gives us maximum flexibility.'

Mr Goodhand used to do logistics for Honeywell Computers and says that the practices and principles at the British Red Cross are exactly the same. This aid operation is run like a business - and a complex one at that. Apart from the charity workers, everyone involved on the logistical side, from the air broker who puts together the deal (plane, airport, flight-path) to the fork-lift truck drivers, operates on a commercial basis - albeit commerce with a heart rather than a hard nose.

'People give extra bits and pieces,' explains David Hedges, KIA's commercial manager. 'We wouldn't put in overtime claims, and everyone ensures that aid organisations and the Government get value for money.' Every company that deals with the British Red Cross offers the keenest prices; some sell items to the charity at cost.

All the employees make sacrifices, too. 'My wife came out of hospital after a fairly major operation last Thursday,' says Mr Hedges, 'and I've been home one night since. To her great credit, she accepts it comes with the territory. But there's still a special kick in being able to do something that contributes.'

Keith Brady, a tousle-haired loader with arms like sides of ham, agrees. At one point last week, he worked 30 hours out of a possible 36. But, he maintains, 'We don't mind. It's worth it when you see what's going on there on the TV. I was actually on the TV the other night, but I never saw it. I was working here.'

It's 5pm, and the Tarmac is hot enough to fry an egg on, but still the loaders beaver away. Mr Goodhand is randomly opening boxes of Braun intravenous transfusion sets and checking their sell-by dates.

Cliches about saints trip out all too readily sometimes. The people at KIA would contend that they are only doing their jobs. 'I'm lucky,' says Mr Goodhand, lighting another Marlboro Light, 'because I'm in a position to do something. There isn't that feeling of helplessness which we hear from other people. But in an ideal world, of course, I'd be redundant.'

LANDING

THE airport controller at Goma is personally responsible for receiving every ounce of aid donated through relief agencies dealing with the millions of Rwandan refugees. His workplace is a high-decibel zone of controlled chaos.

On this remote strip, the big planes are now landing around 20 times a day, some of them scheduled, some of them not. The forklifts dump pallet after pallet on the perimeter, while engines scream. The backdraft of departing planes ploughs up the dust and brings the smell of corpses from the roads along with diesel fumes from the line of waiting trucks.

There are no storage facilities at the airport. Each pallet is stripped of its covering and contents are checked before being hand-loaded on to trucks for despatch to the warehouses in town. The 'plastic waste' is discreetly bundled by the workers for resale to refugees on the town streets.

The airport controller is a young Kiwi who has averaged three hours' sleep a night for the past two weeks. He managed to scrounge half a bread roll from one of the planes today. He speaks no French, but can lip-read anything above the noise. In the process of unloading a massive hump-winged Aleutian, he breaks off to shift a bunch of dark-glassed Zairian military personnel whose vehicle has strayed into his zone. He placates an irate official who has just arrested a German journalist. He cuts a deal with a trucking agent who attempts to charge dollars 600 for his ancient vehicle. He makes me a cup of tea.

Two weeks after the refugee crisis began, 200 tons of food are moving daily into Goma airport and out to the camps. On Thursday, another 350 tons arrived by road from Uganda, as much again today by the land routes, and another 900 tons are due at the weekend. The figures are beginning to keep up with the required 500 tons per day.

That's just food. The young Kiwi also receives medical supplies, water equipment, plastic sheeting, blankets, tools, portable warehousing, trucks, bulldozers, computers, radios - everything to build a city. By accident, a load of Taiwanese flip-flops also arrives.

The job of storing, sorting and despatching all this according to the changing needs of the relief agencies has fallen largely to Care International. In a country without banks or vehicles, where it is difficult to drive downtown without breaking an axle, having a puncture or being accosted for money, this is no mean task.

Before food can be despatched, portable storage has to be sent and erected. Before water can be delivered, bulldozers must arrive to clear the roads. Needs are assessed by all agencies on a day-to-day basis, and by moment-to-moment radio contact between logisticians, drivers, warehouse controllers and fieldworkers.

Setbacks arise by the moment. As I write, the congestion of refugees, water tankers and food trucks on the route north has brought delivery to a virtual standstill. Newly dug trench latrines are full of bodies, trucks have been commandeered to collect corpses, and bulldozers to dig mass graves. Care's logistics co-ordinator has just called on the radio. I asked him how he was doing. 'I'm surfing the biggest wave of my life. I'm keeping my feet on the board, and I'm not going to look down now]'

Alison Campbell is media officer for Care International.

Those wishing to make charitable donations should contact: Oxfam (0865) 312231; Care 071-757 7085; British Red Cross (0345) 315315; Action Aid (0460) 62972; Feed the Children (0272) 767700. From Monday: Rwanda Emergency Appeal (0345) 222333; PO BOX 999, London EC4 9AA.

(Photographs omitted)

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