GOMA, Zaire – The skies here were darkened by aircraft yesterday bearing desperately needed food and medical supplies to Rwandan refugees dying at a rate of one per minute in the squalid camps below.
But the water purifiers needed to combat the raging cholera epidemic did not arrive until nightfall.
So with no way to cleanse the filthy water of disease, 1,400 refugees died yesterday on day six of an epidemic that has cut through the crowded camps like a scythe.
By nightfall the death tally from the epidemic had risen to 14,000, and relief workers had started burning bodies because there was nowhere to bury them.
A mass grave the size of a football field dug into the soft earth on the outskirts of Goma was full. French troops farther down the road were using explosives to blow holes in volcanic rock while hundreds of rotting corpses piled up nearby.
United Nations officials, fearing the death toll could reach 80,000, yesterday asked the United States to launch a military-type operation to distribute aid.
“It is out of control,” said Peter Hansen, a top UN relief official. “We don’t have the capacity to deal With thiS.”
Last night, on the muddy road that leads from the Goma airport to the refugee camp at Katali, the dead were wrapped in mats and stacked like logs.
Bodies are so dense by the roadside that some bear tire marks. Dogs and people could be seen scavenging among the corpses.
“We are all dying,” said one refugee who gathered up his children yesterday and started to walk home. “It is better to be killed in Rwanda.”
Refugees climbed under their mats to die so that others could tie them up more easily. At Munigi camp aid workers spread disinfectant over the piles of people where they fell. In Kibuma camp, a mother gave birth 10 yards from cholera-ridden corpses.
“I’ve seen famines before,” said UNICEF relief worker Brendan Doyle of New York. “But I’ve never been in a situation like thiS. I don’t know anyone who has, except maybe those who were at the Nazi camps during the Second World War.”
Doyle, a water-purification specialist who witnessed starvation in Somalia and Bangladesh, arrived ahead of his equipment. His task is to eradicate the cholera epidemic by making the water safe to drink. But it was hours before the first U.S. cargo plane carrying water-purifying equipment landed.
UN officials yesterday asked Washington to sort out the logistical mess on the tarmac that has held up aid deliveries to the 1 million refugees.
“The Americans could come in and run this airport far more efficiently than it’s being run right now. We hope that will happen,” said Ray Wilkinson, spokesman for the High Commissioner for Refugees. “This crisis calls out for a military-style operation . . . by the Americans.”
Meanwhile, planes landing at Goma’s airport were laden with high-protein food mix that must be mixed with water and medical equipment that is useless if patients don’t have clean water to drink.
Moreover, there weren’t enough trucks to transport all the incoming supplies.
Planes, mostly manned by Russian pilots, waited to be unloaded on the tarmac for up to three hours.
At the main refugee camp in Kalale, a few miles north of Goma, the dead were everywhere–on roadsides, in mounds on garbage-strewn lots. Most were Hutus who fled Rwanda fearing reprisals from the victorious Tutsis who were massacred by Hutu militiamen during the bloody civil war.
Some 3,000 HutUs decided they had had enough and set off for home yesterday.
With News Wire Services