As aid workers flee Zaire, refugees confront epic disaster
November 2, 1996
Web posted at: 9:45 p.m. EST (0245 GMT)
GOMA, Zaire (CNN) -- With the world's biggest international
aid effort shattered by fighting, more than a million
refugees in eastern Zaire confront an epic calamity that the
rest of the world is now powerless to prevent.
Caught in the crossfire of vicious ethnic fighting, at least
700,000 of the 1.1 million Rwandan Hutu refugees who used to
live in camps in eastern Zaire have scattered throughout the
rugged hills and forests along Zaire's frontiers with Rwanda
"They are in the hands of God," said Panos Moumtzis,
spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency in Goma, a
regional capital that is the administrative center for relief
World Food Program
||"We were caught in the crossfire ..."
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United Nations Refugee
||"People are eating leaves ..."
(179K/16 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)
World Food Program
||"There are still people doing their jobs ..."
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Their numbers are swelling as Zairians from Goma and other
towns in the path of advancing Tutsi rebels join the refugee
tide. Some 23,000 Zairians have fled north into Uganda this
week, U.N. officials said: Others are unaccounted for.
The recent fighting has presented aid workers with a painful
dilemma: stay and help the refugees through a chaotic
bloodbath or flee to safety in Rwanda.
This weekend, they chose the latter. "When your relief people
can't go help refugees, why put their life at risk?" asked
Christiana Berthiaume, spokeswoman for the U.N. High
Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva.
More than 130 foreign aid workers used a lull in the
fighting for control of Goma, until this week the nerve
center for the massive relief operation, to dash across the
border to the Rwandan town of Gisenyi, leaving in a caravan
of about 40 vehicles.
But many aid workers, said Moumtzis, left with a "guilty
conscious," fearing that the refugees left behind may starve
or be massacred.
"It was one of the most difficult decisions of our lives.
The prospects for the Rwandans and the Zairians are disastrous."
-- Aid worker Panos Moumtzis
Refugees 'just sat down to die
Tutsi rebels, believed to be backed by Rwanda's Tutsi-
dominated army, stormed the frontier town Friday in a well-
planned attack. Gunfire and mortar exchanges continued to
rock Goma early Saturday, but by afternoon the fighting
apparently had eased
By Saturday night, much of Goma, a key base for the Zairian
army, was in the hands of the rebels.
With the aid workers gone, refugees already are dying of
hunger, aid workers say. Most vulnerable are children, many
of whom suffer from malnutrition and diarrhea and could die
without treatment within hours.
A group of refugees from the Zaire camp of Katale reportedly
"just sat down to die," said CARE International's Mark Richardson, who was in
radio contact with the refugees.
"They have had no water for four or five days. These are the
old, the sick, the vulnerable, the children."
-- Mark Richardson, CARE
The camp of Mugunga, west of Goma near the scenic shores of
Lake Kivu, is the world's biggest refugee city west of Goma, where some 400,000 Rwandan exiles are waiting for salvation or death. Among them are thousands of armed Hutus like those who were behind the 1994 genocide of up to a million Tutsis and other victims.
Frank Cawkwell of CARE-Australia, the last international aid worker to quit
Mugunga a couple of days ago, said all remaining food --
enough for seven days -- was being handed out to stop
Aid workers fear that cholera and dysentery, the fastest
killers in such desperate conditions, could soon return.
"With our departure there is not a single relief worker in
the entire eastern Zaire region," said Moumtzis. "They are on
Fearing the worst, international organizations tried to
devise a way to cope with the grim situation. France's
influential Le Monde newspaper said the European
Union was considering opening "humanitarian corridors" in
Zaire, guarded by troops possibly from France, Belgium and
South Africa, to help the refugees.
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