Rwandan Refugees Dying by the Hundreds

GOMA, Zaire -- Cholera is raging among the 1 million Rwandan refugees in eastern Zaire and by Thursday morning not a grain of UN food had reached the hungry, aid workers said.


"People are still dying like flies," said Isabel Pardigu, the spokeswoman for the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF.


Munigi camp, with an estimated 100,000 refugees existing in appalling conditions, has about 300 suspected cholera cases and 15 more were reported elsewhere, she told reporters in the border town of Goma.


MSF says thousands could die of cholera over the next few days and is setting up isolation tents to care for the dying.


Cholera is highly contagious and kills within hours as the victims lose fluid through acute diarrhea and vomiting.


Daan Everts, the deputy head of the UN World Food Program, or WFP, admitted that by Thursday morning not a single grain had reached the refugees.


A convoy of food trucks failed to reach a camp near Sake to the west of Goma because thousands of soldiers from Rwanda's defeated Hutu government blocked an advance party on the road and demanded a percentage of the food, aid workers said.


"We were afraid of looting," WFP spokeswoman Brenda Barton said.


The convoy will make a second attempt to get through on Thursday, this time with an escort provided by the Zairean authorities, she said.


Filippo Grandi, the head of the emergency unit of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, said Zairean officials estimated 40,000 Rwandan soldiers in the Goma area. Grandi said his estimate was 20,000.


Zaire's government wanted to set up a separate camp for the Rwandan military, much of which is still armed, but the UNHCR has said it would not provide them with aid and demands that the soldiers be absorbed among the refugees in camps which are dividing themselves according to their regions of origin, Grandi said.


"Soldiers have the fastest means of transport. They are strong and young. They get access to the food and block distribution," he added.


The UNHCR was appealing to governments to intervene directly in the crisis under its coordination, possibly with military-style operations, because aid agencies could not cope, Grandi said.


Weakened refugees at the cholera-devastated Munigi camp trek over 8 kilometers to take water from Lake Kivu or queue for hours at a water-tanker manned by the French military.


"Hunger, thirst, the cold and the dust are killing us," said a Rwandan woman peering into a trench where she said her mother was among up to 300 bodies dumped on Goma's outskirts.


And the now the refugees face danger from still another source: a volcano near Goma is becoming active and may erupt, a French expert said Thursday.