Blue and white patches dotted the forest. Below us were Zaire's hidden refugees

As the international aid effort takes shape, David Orr joins an air reconnaissance to find the jungle camps of a war's starving victims
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The Independent Online
Kisangani -From the air they both seemed no more than an inch square, two tiny clearings on the hillsides. Among the green vastness of the east Zairean forest we could see two settlements, patches of brown dotted with blue and white. The blue and white of the plastic sheeting distributed to the refugees by the UN identified them immediately as makeshift refugee camps.

Below us lay part of the unrooted mass of humanity for which the international aid community has been so desperately searching for nearly a month. Here at last was confirmation the refugees were still there; after weeks of wondering where they might be, we had almost begun to believe they had been mysteriously swallowed up by the jungle. From our vantage-point we could see the swath of trees, occasionally intersected by a winding river, spreading out on all sides as far as the horizon.

Our sightings of the refugees were made south-west of Bukavu, the town now in the hands of the Tutsi rebels who last month routed the Zairean army. The conflict caused hundreds of thousands of refugees from Rwanda and Burundi and thousands of Zaireans to flee into the hills and forests of one of Africa's remotest regions.

Our BAC 1-11 flew at 1,300ft, low enough to identify any gatherings of refugees, and high enough, or so hoped the pilots, to be out of range of any missiles the rebels might launch.

Peering from a window of the aircraft was Bernard Sexe, director of emergency humanitarian operations for the French Government. He is preparing an aid convoy to bring relief supplies to the refugees. But before doing so, he needed to fly over the terrain through which he is planning to drive his trucks.

The settlements we spotted were just over an hour's flying time from Kisangani, Mr Sexe's base on a bend of the Zaire (formerly Congo) river. The journey overland will take many days and, at the end of it, there is no certainty the aid mission will find the people it is looking for. The encampments seemed a long way from the dirt road we occasionally saw snaking through the jungle.

Already last week reports of refugees dying like flies were circulating. The Frenchman hopes the land convoy can set off from Kisangani with the first consignment of aid this weekend. Before our take-off from Kisangani airport we could see boxes of Red Cross supplies being unloaded on to the tarmac.

With ill-disciplined Zairean troops retreating along the road and desperate refugees emerging from the bush, this land convoy could be dangerous.

But Mr Sexe is taking the precaution of giving the local commander money to buy food for an escort of Zairean soldiers to accompany the vehicles.

"I think most of the refugees are hiding in the forest because they are afraid of being attacked by the rebels," said Mr Sexe. "But my guess is that they're probably not more than a mile from the roadside. We have no idea what condition they are in. The important thing is do something, and do it quickly."

The convoy preparing to drive east from Kisangani in coming days is only part of a big international aid effort to help the refugees and civilians trapped by conflict in eastern Zaire. The aid operation - and the intervention force which is being assembled to give it protection - is being spearheaded from Zaire's eastern border.

Mr Sexe's initiative is being organised deep in the interior of the country, hundreds of miles from the region on which world attention will be focused in coming days and weeks. "Like Stanley and Livingstone, I hope we'll meet somewhere in the middle," he said.

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