A land and a people scarred

Congo: While rebels and the president argue about aid, Goma faces starvation and disease.

January 24, 2002

THIS IS A DISASTER of Old Testament proportions: A lakeside resort city is overrun by Tutsi and Hutu refugees from genocide in a neighboring country; a rebellion ensues; rebels seize control; and a fiery river of lava cleaves the land in two.

Food supplies from the United Nations arrived in Goma this week; the international community is helping, as it should. But President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has said he wants aid to bypass the city's rebel commanders. Leaders of the Rally for Congolese Democracy, who control Goma and wish to overthrow Mr. Kabila, have been negotiating with relief agencies for the medicine and food heading for survivors of Mount Nyiragongo's Jan. 17 eruption.

But the relief is no salve for Goma's new layer of scars. There's precious little left there to fight over, unless both sides wake up and begin to value the city's now-displaced and much-beleaguered half-million people.

The poor people are caught in the middle as they dig out of misery. Downtown Goma is gone. They had little, and have lost it all, but they would rather return home to the still-steaming crust of rock spat out by the volcano, and possible exposure to toxic fumes and tainted water, than venture into an uncertain future in refugee camps.

The rebel movement cannot cope with the catastrophe. The neighboring regime in Rwanda in the past invaded Goma to remove extremists from among the refugees, and now backs the coup-minded rebels. Apparently, it can afford an army for foreign adventure but not a generous health and humanitarian service.

Sadly, for reconstruction of this beautiful region on the shore of Lake Kivu, emergency aid will not be enough.

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