Everything goes in the desperate battle for survival: In Bukavu, Robert Block finds thousands of Rwandan refugees are staving off starvation by looting their war-torn country

IT IS as if Rwanda were holding the world's largest clearance sale. Every hour of daylight an estimated 2,000 Rwandans, joined by scores of Zaireans who recognise a bargain when they see it, cross the small wooden bridge spanning the Ruzizi River into the Zairean town of Bukavu, carrying a range of objects that would make any DIY enthusiast weep with envy.

There are boys with doors on their heads: metal ones, wooden ones, some with finely cut French windows, others termite-eaten and worn. They jostle with men, women and children carrying sofas, chairs, window frames, tables and living room suites. All that can be stripped, ripped or pillaged from unoccupied houses in Rwanda and carried on a head or hoisted upon a back appears to be fair game. Everything it seems must go.

But this is not looting for the sake of looting. On the contrary, for the thousands of Rwandan refugees fleeing their country, it is a matter of survival. And for the international relief organisations struggling to avert another Goma in eastern Zaire, this is just a very liberal free trade that will provide the refugees with means to get by until an aid pipeline is in place.

'I bought this door,' said one Rwandan teenager with a sheepish grin. 'I plan to sell it again in Zaire and buy food and sheeting with the money,' he added before crossing the bridge, which shook under the stream of free marketeers. The fact that Zaireans are joining in the spree has the added benefit of keeping tensions down between the local population and the thousands of strangers descending upon them.

The Zairean military and border police watch the absurd procession with benign indifference. 'As long as they're not carrying arms and ammunition, we let them pass,' said Captain Kinjgudi Mungul, a military magistrate monitoring the steady flow of refugees across the border.

Aid workers are even more relaxed. 'It is just as well as they are looting. They flog the stuff and buy food,' said Trevor Page of the World Food Programme (WFP).

Contrary to predictions that as many as two million Rwandans would flood this part of Zaire, about 300,000 have arrived so far in Bukavu. A similar number have settled further south around the Zairean border town of Uvira. All of them are Hutus. Some left Rwanda because their extremist leaders told them to. Some left because they are afraid of Rwanda's victorious Tutsi rebels. Others, however, are fleeing because of guilt over their role in the massacres of an estimated 500,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates.

But unlike the massive exodus further north in Goma, where a million Hutus arrived ahead of a rebel advance to live in cramped, medieval conditions under the threat of a cholera epidemic, the flow of refugees to Bukavu is not as worrying. There is no rebel offensive driving the refugees out of the country and when they arrive they spread out among the rolling hills of Bukavu, where they have access to a decent supply of water and, until now, food.

'The people probably have enough to last them about a week, giving us breathing space to open a working aid pipeline,' Mr Page said.

At the moment, WFP has food for only 60,000 people for one day. The plan is to have a steady flow of aid convoys, running from neighbouring Burundi, where food will be stockpiled. In an emergency, there are plans for an airlift.

According to Mr Page, the international relief effort should be able to cope with the situation in Bukavu. One important factor is the delivery of aid to areas inside south-western Rwanda by the International Red Cross and Care International. The aim of the deliveries is to provide food security which will, it is hoped, act as an anchor to keep people from leaving Rwanda and overwhelming Bukavu.

However, the international aid agencies cannot sustain an aid operation for a projected 350,000 refugees indefinitely. The only real solution is for the people to return home.

'Our approach is not to try and push them back; to keep them fit and healthy and let the natural political process - not just at a national level but at a village level - stabilise until word filters back that it is okay to return home,' said Mr Page. But how long that might be in such a deeply divided country as Rwanda is anybody's guess.

NEW YORK - The UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, yesterday doubled an aid appeal for Rwanda, saying that more than dollars 400m ( pounds 260m) was needed for millions of people without food, shelter, medicine and drinking water, Reuter reports.

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