Aid effort reeling as 1,200 Rwandan refugees die a day

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The Independent Online
THE DEAD are wrapped in straw mats or cloth, tied up with rope and left on the roadside like rubbish.

The anonymous bundles line the streets of Goma. Among them are the ill. More dead than alive, children, men and women, young and old, lie in the dust with their hands over their heads waiting for death to come. Soon they too will be wrapped up to await collection.

French soldiers and members of the Irish relief agency, Goal, who collect the bodies, have stopped keeping a detailed account after the number of dead they had collected reached 7,000 on Friday. The exact number of those who have succumbed to cholera, dehydration and exhaustion may never be known. But one thing is certain, the dying has not stopped.

The Zaire government finally opened its border with Rwanda yesterday after preventing people from returning homewards for two days, and about 600 left through the border crossing, joining the thousands who had already left for Rwanda through the bush.

Relief workers said they estimated that as many as 65,000 people have contracted cholera and about half of them are expected to die in the next few days. They put the rate of death at 1,200 a day.

An international aid effort joined yesterday by the American military, which air-dropped food into a refugee camp north of Goma, is struggling to treat the sick and bring in water purification plants. It will be days before the situation comes under control.

In the meantime, the number of dead defies belief. Goma is so overwhelmed with corpses that yesterday afternoon Zairean civilians dragged seven bodies into the street to use as a road block a mile from the city's airport. The Zaireans were asking drivers to either take one or two bodies to the mass grave down the road or to give them money. 'No one is giving us any assistance. So put a body in your car, pay to continue your journey, or turn back,' said a Zairean man standing before the macabre barricade.

The French insist that it is up to the Zairean government to deal with those corpses outside the city. 'Our job is to collect the dead in Goma. My soldiers are busy collecting bodies 15 hours a day,' said the French military spokesman in Goma, Colonel Didier Bolleli. 'But there are so many bodies outside the city no one can collect them. It is the main health problem now. I just don't have enough soldiers to collect more. Like you I'm astounded by the number of dead' the colonel added.

The situation in Goma has reached such a critical level that many Rwandans who fled to Zaire because of their fear of the mainly Tutsi Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) are now willing to face the risks of going back home rather than stay and face the odds of dying from cholera.

Zaire closed its border with Rwanda for two days, but well over 1,000 refugees bribed border officials at the weekend to make their way home. The road from the Rwandan border town of Gisenyi to the north-western city of Ruhengeri was lined with a steady stream of small groups of men, women, and children.

The refugees have become the object of a tug-of-war between Rwanda's former extremist Hutu government and the RPF. Although the RPF now controls 75 per cent of Rwanda, that territory consists of empty villages and deserted towns. The RPF wants the refugees to return to help rebuild the country. The Hutu extremist leaders, on the other hand, have encouraged the massive exodus from Rwanda and are citing the presence of more than a million refugees in Zaire as proof that the RPF cannot govern the country.

'I have decided to go home because of cholera and also because I now recognise the war is over,' said Faustin Nzabonima, a 30- year-old merchant from Ruhengeri, who with hundreds of others yesterday was walking the 40 miles from Gisenyi to Ruhengeri.

The Zaireans closed the border at the weekend to prevent refugees from leaving the town, citing the danger of unexploded ordnance as the reason for their action. But yesterday, the Zairean Prime Minister, Kengo Wagongo, declared that there was no reason to keep the border shut.

But not everyone could escape the legacy of Goma. Several men and women, obviously suffering frm the ravages of cholera and dehydration and too weak to make the journey, were collapsing at the roadside just yards from the frontier. Others, dazed and sick, pushed on, apparently attempting to at least return home to die.

Pointing towards Goma, where members of the Hutu government fled after the RPF victory last week, RPF Lieutenant Faustin Kaliisa said: 'Those people over there created this. Now we're the ones who must face it.'

KIGALI - Rwanda's new Prime Minister indicated yesterday there are splits within the government, AP reports. Faustin Twagiramungu, objecting to comments by the President, Pasteur Bizimungu, that elections would not be called for at least five years, warned that Rwanda risked falling into a dictatorship.

'We have to get to elections. And if I win, don't kill me, please. Don't take your guns or machetes and kill me or cut my head off,' Mr Twagiramungu said.

(Photograph omitted)