Cholera has been sweeping through the camp at Goma, just across Rwanda's border with Zaire, where a million desperate people have gathered. Almost 14,000 have died there in just two days, with hundreds of thousands more at risk. But there was further alarm yesterday when the first cases of the disease were reported at a second huge refugee camp, Bukavu, 75 miles to the south. And even as the international relief effort gathered pace, Zairean troops closed the border near Goma trapping the million or so Hutus in their cholera-ridden camp.
Speaking in Brussels, the US Defense Secretary, William Perry, and General George Joulwan, commander of US forces in Europe, said 'humanitarian daily rations' would be air-dropped to pockets of refugees in places pinpointed by the UN - though US satellites as well as at least one P3 Orion intelligence-gathering plane are being used to help track the refugees.
General Joulwan and Mr Perry stressed that water purification for drinking and sanitation would be the main priority early in the international operation co-ordinated by Washington, and the US was sending water purifying units capable of cleaning a total of 1.2 million gallons daily.
Three huge Starlifter jets were flying out of a US Air Force base near Frankfurt, Germany, to spearhead the aid effort. Ahead of them, the first US army reconnaissance team flew into Goma promising to get the wheels of aid rolling quickly there. The Pentagon said about 4,000 troops would help the relief effort for at least several weeks.
Britain announced an increased contribution yesterday, while an extra plane joined Germany's airlift and a planeload of supplies left Bordeaux in France. Britain said it would give a further pounds 6.5m to aid agencies, bringing Britain's total aid to the region to pounds 40m, while the European Union has pledged another dollars 90m ( pounds 60m). But the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said money and other aid were too little and too late.
'Yesterday was worse than the day before, which was worse than the day before,' a spokesman for the UNHCR said. The UNHCR has appealed to governments to undertake particular tasks in the refugee crisis and the US and Germany are handling drinking water supplies, transport logistics, and storage and supply facilities. 'We are delighted with what the US is doing, and really pleased with what Germany is doing,' the UNHCR spokesman said. 'But we are very disappointed with the response on other parts of our appeal, particularly on sanitation.'
The closing of the border at Goma will not help the relief drive. Persuading the Hutus it was safe to return to their homes, where crops are ripening and water is not diseased, has been at the heart of the humanitarian effort and the Zairean move was a heavy blow. About 2,000 people were turned back towards the camp.
The Zaireans said they acted because of the dangers of abandoned ammunition along the road - three people died in accidents yesterday - but local people suspect that it was done at the behest of the defeated Hutu government, which fled across the border with some 20,000 troops last week.
These have already proved seriously disruptive. Near Bukavu, Rwandan soldiers and Hutu militias have been raiding aid convoys and firing across the border at Rwandan towns in an attempt to frighten civilians still in Rwanda into fleeing to Zaire. A further problem is extortion by local officials. Zaire says it has waived landing fees for aid flights into Goma, but aid workers on the spot said that in fact bribes of up to dollars 3,000 were being paid for each aircraft.
Zairean soldiers and Hutu Rwandan soldiers routinely rob refugees and demand money from travellers. Aid workers have had to haggle with former Rwandan ministers over the hire of buses to ferry the sick.
There is chaos at Goma airport. 'The air traffic controller is used to two small planes a day, and now has 10 big jumbos a day,' a relief worker said.
In Britain the Disasters Emergency Committee, co-ordinating the efforts of eight aid agencies, renewed its appeal for public donations. The DEC is aiming to raise funds to send 20 planeloads of aid.
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