The collection of dead bodies has now become the most pressing problem facing the international relief effort. 'The situation is very serious. If they stay outside for much longer, we will have bloated bodies and disease. In the short term our highest priority is dealing with these bodies,' said Ray Wilkinson, the spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner (UNHCR) in Goma.
The dead in Goma are everywhere. They line the roads. They are piled in refugee camps. They are scattered in fields. In some places the cadavers are collected in dozens of stacks, three to four bodies deep. The sheer number of the dead is overwhelming the desperate effort to get them off the streets and out of the refugee camps.
Spearheading the collection of the dead are the French troops in Goma. About 100 of them work 15 hours a day with teams of Zaireans collecting the corpses in the city. In the 24-hour period until noon yesterday, the French estimated that they had collected 2,890 bodies. But the French refuse to work outside the city limits and are reluctant to handle decomposing cadavers, because they fall apart when they are lifted onto trucks. In the past week the Irish aid agency Goal, Care International, and since four days ago, the Boys Scouts of Goma, have been drafted into the struggle.
Yesterday at Kibumba, one of the 16 refugee camps established in the Goma region, a contingent of scouts was loading cadavers onto the back of a small white truck.
'We got involved because we wanted to evacuate the dead from our cities and because we are scouts and we must help the community,' said Efraim Gorilla, the leader of the local troop.
Dressed in the traditional khaki uniform and pointed broad- brimmed hat, bearing the Fleur de Lis, the symbol of the international scout movement, he shouted orders as young men wrapped the decomposing bodies in plastic sheeting before carefully lifting them. 'Be careful how you handle that,' he called out. 'These are in bad shape.'
The Boy Scouts have teams working in eight other camps. As many as 65,000 people are expected to be afflicted with cholera before the relief agencies can get water treatment plants and sanitation equipment in place. As many as 50 per cent of the cases could result in death.
The UNHCR estimates 1,800 Rwandans are dying every day from cholera and dysentry. Other agencies believe the number is much higher. But the rate of death is not the only problem.
Goma sits in the middle of an area of active volcanoes and the underlying rock is extremely hard, meaning that finding burial places is difficult. The first sites of soft earth filled up within the first five days of the cholera epidemic last week. Efforts are now underway by aid agencies and the UN to find other sites, and to get heavy earth- moving equipment, capable of breaking the ground.
Yesterday, the United States agreed to an urgent UN request to dispatch mechanics and bulldozers to Goma to help deal with the problem. In the meantime the pressure on finding sites for mass graves is hampering efforts to bring the epidemic under control.
'Bulldozers have been taken over to bury the bodies in Kimbumba which means roads cannot be cleared for tankers to deliver water,' said Alison Campbell of Care International. 'In the Katale camp, we build huge trench latrines which are now filled with bodies. This really sets back our sanitation operation,' she added.
There is another problem. It is not always easy to determine the dead from the barely living. On Tuesday, French soldiers were filling a mass grave in Goma when one of the bodies, that of a young boy, moved. He was rescued.