British medics strive to stem refugee exodus

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The Independent Online
IN SPITE of appeals to remain in Rwanda, more than half of the refugees in the French-protected zone in the south-west of the country are expected to head for Zaire when the French leave on 21 August, according to the UN's special representative, Shahryar Kahn.

Although the focus of attention has shifted south and to neighbouring Burundi, the British force now arriving in Kigali sees its role as vital in creating a situation to which people will be willing to return. But so far only 20 per cent of those who have come for treatment to the British army medical centre at Ruhengeri, near the northern border, have said they are returning from the camps: the rest are local people.

Yesterday the first British aid convoy left for the refugee camp at Kibuye, which until now has received no supplies by road although they have been brought in by barge over Lake Kivu. And the Red Cross carried out the first distribution of food aid in the Kigali area since the civil war.

The Red Cross aid - maize, lentils and oil - was given out on the roadside just south of Tire, 20 kilometres (12 miles) north of Kigali. The road from Kigali up to Ruhengeri runs through steep terraced hills which give no clue to the fighting that has taken place. They are covered with what still appear to be well-kept plantations although the Red Cross said some of the crops had not been harvested for three years. That was why some aid was needed, even in such a fertile landscape. The local people looked fit and well fed. The Red Cross said they were a mixture of Tutsis and Hutus, though mostly the latter who clearly were not afraid of the victorious Rwandan People's Army, as the Rwandan People's Front is now known. They all came from within a few miles: although there are no telephone communications, news of such events spreads rapidly.

At Ruhengeri, the British Army medical centre, currently staffed by nine doctors, one nurse and 50 paramedics, has seen a big increase in the number of patients since it opened on Wednesday. On the first day there were about 100 cases, on the second 400 and on the fourth 800.

'It's a magnet' said Captain Julian Woodhouse, who has been an army doctor for a year. Most of the patients are suffering from dehydration and diarrhoea brought on by dysentery. One little girl called Mugwameza was suffering from a chest infection and malaria and was receiving intravenous glucose and quinine in the acute ward, in what looks like an old chapel. 'In England she'd probably be in an intensive care unit but we're the closest thing to it,' said Captain Woodhouse.

The problems are not just physical. Ten days ago the captain treated a woman whose husband and three children had been killed. She had badly infected wounds with maggots in them. Only when she had been rehydrated did it become apparent that she was very depressed. 'We put her in charge of the kettle - making soup and chocolate for the other patients,' Captain Woodhouse said. 'She first talked two days ago.' The British unit has a psychologist but he is concentrating more on physical medicine at the moment. Like the other British units in Kigali and Byumba, Ruhengeri has about half its eventual complement of 600 engineers, medical staff, mechanics, drivers, headquarters and signals personnel. They will all be in place in about 10 days' time. Kigali airport has limited capacity for large aircraft and incoming troops have to bring everything with them.

In order to get the force there quickly, Britain has used US C5 Galaxy aircraft.

(Photograph omitted)