'They just die and die,' doctor says of refugees

July 22, 1994|By New York Times News Service

GOMA, Zaire -- Death struck yesterday with a vengeance.

More than 800 bodies of Rwandan refugees, many of them wrapped in straw mats or pieces of cloth, were laid out along a three-mile stretch of road from the center of Goma to Munigi, a volcanic expanse.

At Munigi, a small boy walked barefoot across the rocky ground carrying a bundle in his arms. Wrapped inside the dirty piece of cloth was his little sister.

As he laid her gently on the volcanic rock, a few tears running down his face, two men carried a woman in a blue and yellow striped shirt and pleated skirt by the arms and legs. They dropped her on the rocks with the other bodies.

A man sprayed the corpses with a disinfectant. Volunteers wearing gauze masks picked the bodies off the ground and heaved them onto pickups. There were not enough trucks. A dump truck came. It too was quickly filled.

A little girl in a pink dress who was seen Wednesday sitting alone beside her dead mother was still at the camp yesterday. But she was no longer alone; she sat with two other tiny girls. No one knew who they were or where their mothers were.

"We can't do anything, I am afraid," said Dr. Florence Parent ofDoctors Without Borders. "They just die and die and die, and they keep coming and coming and coming."

Laboratory tests have confirmed the presence of cholera.

The fortunate ones of those stricken had a relative or friend standing over them, holding a saline intravenous drip.

"We can't cope," said Dr. Parent.

That is what relief workers were saying even before the outbreak of cholera. Now, they say, the world's armies must come to fight another war against disease and hunger, as they did for Iraq's Kurds who fled Saddam Hussein in 1991.

The arrival of nearly a million refugees in less than a week is the greatest migration ever in such a short period. Even worse, there are few suitable sites for camps and very little water.

Logistical obstacles increase the nightmares for the relief workers: The airport has only one runway, built for small commercial flights, and the runway already is beginning to crack under the weight of dozens of flights a day by French military aircraft and the few cargo planes that have arrived with supplies.

After more than a week, the columns of refugees still walking to Zaire is unbroken for more than 20 miles on the road north out of Goma. Makeshift camps have sprung up. Tall trees have been stripped of all but the highest branches. Forests are being cut down. Fields are being turned to dust.

South of Goma, beyond the large Lake Kivu, refugees continued to pour across Rwanda's southwestern border.

At least 350,000 people are in Uvira, Zaire, and another 250,000 in Bukavu, said a U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman, Fernando del Mundo. Another 1.7 million were spotted heading toward the border earlier in the week.

The relief agencies provide less than 20 percent of the food, water and shelter that the refugees need. Today, 200 tons of food are to be distributed; the estimated need is for 600 tons a day. On the average, one ton of emergency food feeds 70 people for a month.

The UNHCR has presented to world governments an outline of what is needed: workers and equipment to keep the runway in repair and to unload planes, 450 trucks and other vehicles and fuel for them, engineers and equipment to maintain the roads to the refugee camps and workers and equipment to dig 60,000 latrines.

The relief agencies have also requested fuel for cooking. "Otherwise there won't be a single tree left in this area," said Filippo Grandi, head of an UNHCR emergency team that has been sent to Rwanda.

Most desperately the relief workers need clean water and sanitation to fight cholera.

"You cannot stop it for the moment," Dr. Koenraad Henckaerts, of Doctors Without Borders, said of the cholera. All that can be done, he said, is to treat those who contract the disease, and only a small percentage of them. Planeloads or intravenous solutions are needed, he said, and 100 doctors and medical assistants.

In a situation like this, from 1 percent to 5 percent of the refugees can be expected to come down with cholera, Dr. Henckaerts said. That would mean 10,000 to 50,000 cases. And, he said, half of those could be expected to die.

Wednesday afternoon at Munigi, the ground around four medical tents was littered with bodies -- maybe 60 -- and 100 or so people were lying on the ground undergoing treatment.

Twenty-four hours later, the ground inside a 400-square-yard area cordoned off with a red and white striped ribbon was solid with people -- the living, the barely living; the dead, the dying.

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