Cholera fear for Rwanda refugees

GOMA - Hundreds of corpses, many of them children who had trekked in fear out of Rwanda, lay in the streets around Goma yesterday and medical workers feared a cholera epidemic was imminent.

Wrapped in rush mats, or just lying as they had fallen, the bodies of men, women and children could be seen across this Zairean border town, along the roads leading to refugee camps and in the camps themselves.

Workers from the charity organisation, Caritas, and French troops with Operation Turquoise, collected the dead in trucks and took them to a mass grave near a cemetery outside Goma airport.

One truck alone brought in about 100 bodies, adding to the scores already in the grave. At least 70 more bodies lay by the road awaiting burial.

At the main camp of Kibumba, which holds about 300,000 of the estimated 1 million refugees who have fled here from Rwanda, people were collapsing around the two medical tents set up by the charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). Refugees too traumatised or exhausted to help, stepped around dying children. Reporters witnessed similar scenes at Munigi camp, which has received no supplies of food since the mass exodus into Zaire began a week ago. A woman and her baby lay on the ground locked in an embrace of death.

Jacques de Milliano, the president of the medical charity, said: 'This goes beyond imagination. We can only minimise the damage. Too many people are packed together. If there is an epidemic spreading it goes very fast.' Results of tests to confirm scores of suspected cholera cases would be available in three days, he added. Statistics show that in such conditions 1 to 2 per cent of refugees will contract a severe case of cholera. Half of those will die, he said. Out of a refugee population of 1 million this would mean 5,000 to 10,000 deaths within days. Cholera can kill in hours. One refugee family said their son died within two hours of falling ill.

MSF had already brought in tons of medical supplies before this catastrophe hit Zaire but Mr de Milliano said many more aid flights were needed. Zaireans said fear was spreading through the town. People walk with masks over their faces.

'The conditions are appalling. The humanitarian organisations were unprepared to deal with a crisis of these proportions,' Panos Moumtzis, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said.

Water was desperately short, Mr Moumtzis said, and appealed to the international community to send 50 water- tankers that could hold 2,600 gallons each. UN food was being sent to about 15,000 refugees at the two camps of Katale and Mugumga yesterday, the first UN supplies to reach any of the camps since the exodus began, Mr Moumtzis said.

The Red Cross has delivered more than 200 tons of food to the main camp at Kibumba. Johanna Grombach, for the Red Cross, said 300,000 people queued patiently for aid yesterday.

Aid workers, who asked not to be identified, said they were concerned that the strongest among the refugees, as well as the former government's Hutu army, would get to food distribution points while the young and sick would die along the way.

The aid workers feared the Zairean authorities were going to set up a separate camp for Hutu soldiers despite being told by the UN and other agencies that they would receive no food aid.