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.”