Aid workers caught in heavy Zaire fighting
Might have to abandon massive relief operations
October 31, 1996
Web posted at: 10:15 a.m. EST (1515 GMT)
In this story:
(CNN) -- With heavy artillery fire so close "it sends shivers
through you," aid workers were preparing to leave Goma, the
center of refugee relief operations in eastern Zaire where
Tutsi rebels are battling Zairian government troops.
A pullout would cause "a humanitarian catastrophe," said
Augustine Mahiga, regional coordinator of the U.N. High
Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). "We cannot imagine what
will happen to the refugees if there is no assistance. It is
really going to be a disaster."
Goma is the administrative headquarters for international
relief operations to feed 1.1 million Hutus from neighboring
Rwanda who crossed into Zaire after ethnic massacres in 1994
and now live in massive refugee camps.
There were conflicting reports on whether rebels had captured
the Goma airport. There was also unconfirmed information
that that U.N. relief workers had been ambushed, with
casualties, in Bukavu, a Zairian city to the south of Goma.
'Highly volatile, ever changing'
The airport is about two and a half miles (four km) north of
the city and a key target because aid agencies use it to
bring in staff and supplies for refugees and the Zairian
military has been bringing in army reinforcements in recent
days through it.
A pull-out by aid agencies would leave the refugees, in close
proximity to hostile Tutsi forces, without any obvious means
of support. The agencies have been struggling to feed the
refugees and improve hygiene in the huge camps.
"The situation is extremely tense, highly volatile and ever
changing," Michele Quintaglie of the United Nation's World
Food Program told CNN during a telephone interview aired live
"Heavy artillery was fired, probably less than a kilometer
(half-mile) from us that shook our building to a point where
it just sends shivers through you. It's incredible," she
said. It was not immediately clear which side had fired the
"We are still receiving contradictory information about the
status of the airport," said another aid official. Panos
Moumtzis, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for
Refugees initially said the airport had been taken over by
rebels and that the information was confirmed from the
Zairian side. But he later said Zairian sources told UNHCR
the airport remained in Zairian army hands.
"Aid agencies have been told to prepare for a 70 to 100
percent evacuation from Goma" to neighboring Rwanda, said
Steve Pratt of CARE International.
Mahiga, the UNHCR coordinator, said there were "unconfirmed
reports that some of our local staff from Bukavu who were
trying to leave the town ran into an ambush. We've heard of
casualties -- dead and wounded -- but we don't know the
numbers, we don't know the location."
Refugees on the move
Another concern for aid workers was the movement of about
115,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees who fled from the Kahindo camp
40 miles (60 km) north of Goma on Thursday because of nearby
The refugees were heading south towards Mugunga camp, near
Goma, which is already overflowing with 400,000 people.
Zairians, themselves, have also come to the camps by the
thousands, hoping to escape the violence.
Aid workers said they feared the fighting could set off yet
another mass exodus from Katale camp, sheltering more than
200,000 Rwandan Hutus, near Kahindo.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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