Goma's homeless face food crisis as aid trickles in

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The Independent Online

A few people are carrying on as if life is back to normal. A man stands under an umbrella at a roadside kiosk, selling tins of tomato paste. Boys play football on waste ground. Women boil porridge over charcoal stoves in doorways.

A few people are carrying on as if life is back to normal. A man stands under an umbrella at a roadside kiosk, selling tins of tomato paste. Boys play football on waste ground. Women boil porridge over charcoal stoves in doorways.

But in Goma, the town half-submerged in a sea of solidified lava, many are becoming increasingly desperate. Tens of thousands of people who are now homeless are queueing for food and water in their devastated town, near the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many have not eaten since Mount Nyiragongo erupted six days ago.

Yesterday the first aid trucks arrived, but the number was far from equal to the need. "We have no drinking water. We have nothing to eat," said Jeanine Nadjuma, 28, throwing up her hands in despair. Several of her six children are ill from lack of food.

"Everything we had was burnt we've got nothing left," said John Pungwe, 26, a student, clutching a plastic bottle he intended to take to a local church which rumour had it was distributing cooking oil. "We've heard the international community is here, but we haven't seen any aid yet."

Everywhere in the streets foreign visitors were being stopped by people asking when the promise of international food aid will materialise. "We are under heavy pressure to start helping people," said Brenda Barton of the United Nations World Food Programme.

The problem is that the international aid effort was initially geared to help the volcano's victims in camps over the border in Rwanda. Agencies including Oxfam have already flown in bedding and enough equipment to provide clean water for 50,000 people. But while some refugees have remained in the camps, nearly all of the 400,000 residents of Goma who fled there at first have returned home.

And getting aid into Goma will be logistically much tougher. UN aid agencies have launched an emergency appeal for an initial $15m (£10.5m) for food, shelter and medicines. The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in Geneva yesterday that six sites were being prepared for aid distribution in Goma, along with two sites for temporary resettlement outside the town. But food distribution will not begin until tomorrow at the earliest.

Some fresh water was trucked in yesterday and distribution points were being set up throughout the town where pipes were cut, according to Michael Despines, the head of the International Rescue Committee in Goma. Electricity has been partly restored and one of the water treatment plants is operating, though officials are still checking the mineral content to make sure it is safe.

The breakdown of law and order, however, remains an obstacle to the relief effort. The death of 50 people when a petrol station they were pillaging exploded on Monday seems not to have deterred others. Looting remains widespread. Thieves even broke into UN offices in Goma and stole computers and other equipment important to the aid operation.

Reports say at least 13 looters – including seven soldiers – have been shot dead by officers of the Congolese rebel group, the RCD, which controls the region. The town's radio station was broadcasting warnings from the RCD yesterday to those tempted to steal. "Whoever is caught looting red-handed will only get judgement from God," the rebel leaders warned.

There are some who see opportunity as well as danger. One woman who gave birth two days ago after fleeing to Rwanda has named her baby Volcano. And one man, Willy Olela, 27, who was offering to take pictures of passers-by with a spectacular stretch of lava, said he had made enough money to buy a bag of rice. For some, it seems, there is profit even among the peril.

* The President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, told the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, and his French counterpart, Hubert Vedrine, that the country will not pull its troops out of Congo until its security concerns have been addressed. Both ministers flew to Rwanda to speed the peace process, but appear to have made little progress.

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