Congo refugees get soap, no food

UN officials say priority is to resupply clinics

UN peacekeepers escorted a truck convoy carrying medical supplies to Rutshuru, a village 55 miles north of Goma, Congo. UN peacekeepers escorted a truck convoy carrying medical supplies to Rutshuru, a village 55 miles north of Goma, Congo. (Les Neuhaus/ Reuters)
By Michelle Faul
Associated Press / November 4, 2008
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KIBATI, Democratic Republic of Congo - Refugees who hadn't eaten for days cheered when the first humanitarian convoy in a week arrived yesterday at their camp, but the jubilation turned into anger when UN workers dumped soap and jerry cans instead of food and sped on past rebel lines.

UN officials admit hunger at the Kibati camp, where tens of thousands of refugees have sought safety, is dire but say their first priority is resupplying clinics looted by retreating government troops.

"Are we supposed to eat this?" asked Boniface Ndayumujinya, an elderly man who waved a bundle of spring onions delivered by a friend. He said he was with eight family members who had had nothing to eat in five days.

UN peacekeepers escorted the 12-vehicle aid convoy carrying medical supplies north from the provincial capital of Goma, past Kibati, and beyond rebel lines to Rutshuru, a village 55 miles (88 kilometers) north of Goma.

Both the Congolese Army and rebel leader Laurent Nkunda assured the convoy's safe passage, said Gloria Fernandez, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in eastern Congo.

Medical supplies and tablets to purify water were the priority in this shipment, she said, adding that another convoy today would be bringing food for some of the 250,000 refugees displaced by fighting in this central African nation.

She said health clinics north of Goma have been "looted and completely destroyed," leaving the Rutshuru hospital as the only operating medical facility in a region of hundreds of thousands of people.

The soap and plastic jerry cans for water distributed in Kibati Monday were meant to help with sanitation amid fears of a cholera epidemic.

Food, however, was the critical issue for most people.

"Everybody is hungry, everybody," said Jean Bizy, 25, a teacher who watched with envy as the UN convoy stopped to deliver a sack of potatoes to UN troops in Rugari. Bizy said he has been surviving on wild bananas for days.

Onesphore Sematumba, of local think tank Pole Institute, watched with horror as thousands of children lined up in the sun for hours at the Kibati camp to get tokens that will allow them to queue for high-energy biscuits.

The children thought they were waiting for the biscuits.

"We really need to re-think humanitarian aid," Sematumba said. "If you can't help people, don't create false hopes."

UN officials said the token system was necessary because of the unrest that broke out when aid workers tried to distribute biscuits directly.

"Friday and Saturday were extremely, extremely difficult," said Jaya Murthy, a spokesman for the UN Children's Fund. "Some kids were even injured in the crush. We want to avoid a stampede that could even perhaps cause death."

A World Food Program official in Rutshuru, asked about the lack of food, said the group had supplies that would be delivered as soon as possible but noted that two truckloads of their food aid was destroyed by soldiers before the town fell last week.

Nkunda went on the offensive Aug. 28 and brought his fighters to the edge of Goma last week before declaring a unilateral truce.

The conflict is fueled by festering ethnic hatred left over from Rwanda's 1994 genocide and Congo's civil wars from 1996-2002. Nkunda claims the Congolese government has not protected ethnic Tutsis from the Rwandan Hutu militia that escaped to Congo after helping slaughter a half-million Rwandan Tutsis.

Nkunda, who defected from the army in 2004, now says he is fighting to liberate all of Congo from a corrupt government.

All sides are believed to fund fighters by illegally mining Congo's vast mineral riches, giving them no financial incentive to stop the fighting.

Nkunda called a cease-fire in what appeared a political move and declared he was opening a humanitarian corridor to allow aid to get through and refugees to get home. To ease food shortages, rebels on Monday allowed farmers to reach Goma in trucks packed with cabbages, onions, and spinach.

Government troops, who looted and raped in Goma as they retreated Wednesday, do not venture much beyond Kibati, 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) outside the city, and some live among the refugees there, creating a tense and dangerous situation.

Both government and rebel forces are accused of gross human rights abuses although, in this latest fighting, refugees say the rebels are not molesting them.

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