U.S. refugee aid efforts barely get off the ground

July 29, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

GOMA, Zaire -- A week after President Clinton announced an "immediate and massive" increase in aid to alleviate the suffering of the 1.2 million Rwandan refugees here, deliveries of American relief supplies have barely begun, and the operation appears to be marred by woeful confusion and delay.

Despite a growing buildup of supplies in distant depots, only a trickle of emergency aid sent has reached the sick and exhausted refugees. Doctors say a growing number are now dying of thirst from lack of water, as well as from a fierce cholera epidemic and outbreaks of measles and meningitis.

Defense Secretary William J. Perry is to arrive Sunday for a visit here and at the operation's airlift staging site at Entebbe airport in Kampala, Uganda. One of his missions will be to sort out an American operation that has had virtually no impact here.

"We've been screaming up the chain of command to say 'Get your act together'," one angry U.S. officer said. "It's been a very frustrating experience."

senior U.N. official here said the American effort has been disappointing so far. "We keep getting a lot of promises, but then we keep waiting," he said. "We need the Americans. We're desperately, urgently waiting for them. But right now, all we've got is promises."

Only 20 U.S. military flights and 75 soldiers and civilian contractors have landed at Goma's chaotic airport so far, including an 18-member airlift support team that flew in yesterday. By contrast, Doctors Without Borders, the largest of the non-governmental groups working here, has posted a staff of 120.

The U.S. military has brought about 71 tons of humanitarian aid. More than 300 tons of relief supplies from other groups pass through the airport each day.

But the initial troops were surprisingly ill-prepared. Most have slept in two borrowed tents inside the French Foreign Legion compound at the airport. Air Force Capt. David Burgess was in Nairobi, Kenya, when he was ordered to assess needs at the airport here. He quickly hitched a ride on a relief plane flown by Ukrainian pilots.

"I've been here seven days," he said, scratching his stubble. "I told them six days ago what I needed. That's my job here. I need 30 people and equipment. And I've waited and waited and waited."

He has spent the week driving a forklift at the airport and slept in it one night as well. "I'm a C-5 pilot," he added. "Get the picture?"

Despite widespread publicity about the arrival of two water purification units early this week, the first delivery of 15,000 gallons of clean water produced by the Americans didn't start until Wednesday. About 24,000 gallons were produced yesterday, or enough for about 20,000 refugees for the day.

U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Carl Brosky, who heads a 42-member team of soldiers and civilians who have set up camp on the shores of Lake Kivu here, said it would take up to another week to hook up eight huge "super-chlorination" units and achieve full production 500,000 gallons a day.

Since relief groups estimate the refugees each need just more than a gallon a day to survive, that will be enough for only one-third of the refugee population. And that assumes the water gets to them.

Since the United States didn't deliver any tankers, the United Nations is delivering the clean water to Kibumba refugee camp in six locally hired trucks usually used to haul gasoline.

Conflicting reports, meanwhile, continued.

Army Col. Robert Mirelson, the U.S. spokesman here, announced earlier this week that 1,000 American troops would be deployed in Kigali, capital of Rwanda, by next Monday. The White House and Pentagon later said no final decision had been made.

Colonel Mirelson said yesterday he couldn't explain what had happened.

"I was told 1,000 troops by Monday," he said. "I had that from Washington. That was the straight poop." At this point, he added, "Honestly, I don't know how many troops [are coming] or where."

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