Hungry Congo refugees get soap, no food

A Congolese boy carries his sister as they await the first food delivery by the World Food Program at a camp for displaced persons in Masisi, Congo, Thursday, Nov. 22, 2007. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)
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KIBATI, Congo (AP) -- Refugees who haven't eaten for days cheered when the first humanitarian convoy in a week arrived Monday at their camp, but the jubilation turned into anger when U.N. workers dumped soap and jerry cans instead of food and sped on past rebel lines.

U.N. 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.

U.N. 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 U.N. 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 on Tuesday 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 on 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, a 25-year-old teacher who watched with envy as the U.N. convoy stopped to deliver a sack of potatoes to U.N. 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."

U.N. 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 U.N. 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 reminded reporters that two truckloads of their food aid was destroyed by soldiers before the town fell on Tuesday last week.

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

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 on 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. Rebels also seem to be holding a self-imposed cease-fire line 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) from Goma.

When asked Sunday about the suffering his offensive has brought to a quarter million people, Nkunda replied: "That's the cost of freedom."

He was speaking to journalists who spent Saturday night in the bush behind rebel lines and then walked five hours through ankle-deep mud to reach the rebel leader.

Since Thursday, streams of refugees have thronged the roads around Goma trying to get home, lugging babies and bundles of belongings, guiding children, pigs and goats.

Another stream is moving in the other direction, south from Rutshuru, from camps they said the rebels forced them to leave at gunpoint. U.N. officials say the rebels also have burned at least three refugee camps around Rutshuru, apparently wanting to make sure people do not return.

The rebels deny this, saying they told people that they could go home now that they have "liberated" the area.

Nkunda wants direct talks with the government. He has especially complained about a $9 billion agreement in which China gets access to Congo's valuable minerals in return for building a highway and railroad.

Nkunda's rebellion has threatened to re-ignite the back-to-back wars that afflicted Congo from 1996 to 2002, drawing in a half dozen African nations. Congo President Joseph Kabila, elected in 2006 in Congo's first election in 40 years, has struggled to contain the violence in the east.

Associated Press writer Elizabeth Kennedy contributed to this report from Nairobi, Kenya.

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