A terrible place to live and die: Hutu leaders use tales of Tutsi revenge to keep refugees in the camps - where death outpaces the mounting rescue effort

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The Independent Online
WHEN experienced aid workers weep, when hardened French soldiers are numbed by shock, and reporters are silenced by suffering - then the scale of the disaster is apparent.

'They say that I scream as soon as I fall asleep,' Kevin Noone told me as he loaded the corpses of cholera victims on to the back of a lorry. Mr Noone, an Irishman working with the aid agency Goal, is one of a number of extraordinary individuals involved in the struggle to cope with the catastrophe - and with their own emotions.

Mr Noone was working in Minigi, the worst of the cholera camps near Goma. He was picking up the dead, and urging others to do the same. 'In the name of God, I need help] Don't just stand there - get the bodies into the truck - or we will all die.' And he scooped up another child, and another and another, and threw their tiny bodies into the dumper truck.

He didn't stop working, shouting and cajoling as he tried to cleanse the refugee camps of the diseased and bloated corpses. But all the while he was fighting back tears. 'It's so difficult, so difficult . . .'

The most harrowing scenes in the refugee camps of eastern Zaire are of the living and the dying sharing the ground with the dead. I watched a young child tug at the clothes of his dead mother, pleading with her to wake up. I watched orphans stagger through the camps until they were overcome by the first violent attacks of diarrhoea and vomiting. This was always the sign that they too were caught in the grip of the cholera epidemic. The terror on their gaunt faces told the story: they knew they were going to die.

Ray Wilkinson, the spokesman for the UN High Commission for Refugees, tells the story of his visit to the vast Kibumba camp, where 300,000 refugees are living. Having stepped over piles of bodies, he patted one child on the head who then keeled over dead. That is how weak some have become.

Even though the humanitarian relief effort is now gaining real momentum, at least 2,000 refugees are still dying every day. Doctors monitoring the epidemic say that is unlikely to change for at least another 10 days. Even with the supply of drinking water finally increasing, cholera and dysentery are spreading from camp to camp.

The bodies are neatly laid out along the roadside, many wrapped in reed mats. Each afternoon the French military send a convoy of lorries to ferry the dead to the burial pits. As soon as the corpses are gone, the ditches start filling again.

If there is a more terrible place to die, I have never seen it. The hard volcanic rock of this corner of eastern Zaire means that it is impossible to dig: for sanitation, water, or graves. The UNHCR has now made an urgent appeal for incinerators.

The most chilling sound is the relative silence that has descended over the camps. After 10 days in the cholera camps I never heard a woman cry out in grief or a man shout in anguish. The Hutus suffer in silence.

But behind that suffering - and there are at least 20,000 dead so far - lie some disturbing questions. The Hutu militias, the driving force behind the genocide inflicted on the minority Tutsis of Rwanda, are now destroying their own people. They forced them to flee with apocalyptic warnings of what the Tutsi-dominated Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) would do once they won the war. And now the militias - organising in the camps - are trying to prevent the refugees from returning home. In their grotesque logic, it is better to have Hutus dying of cholera in the camps than to have them living within Rwanda reconciled to RPF rule.

The refugees have to be persuaded by the UNHCR that it is safe for them to return home, that they will not be massacred by vengeful Tutsis. It places the UN in the heart of Rwanda's ethnic politics. But its senior officials acknowledge that the humanitarian operation in Zaire is not tenable in the long term. The stark truth is that no amount of American logisticians or British troops or French doctors can sustain a million refugees on a slab of volcanic rock next to a contaminated lake.

Robert Moore has just returned from Goma. He is a foreign correspondent with ITN.

(Photograph omitted)