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Africa
Aid but no food for DRC refugees
UN delivers medicine and soap but says displaced have to wait one more day for food.
Last Modified: 04 Nov 2008 06:34 GMT

About 250,000 people have been displaced by fighting between the army and rebels [AFP]

Aid is finally trickling through to refugees displaced by the fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
 
But a UN relief convoy delivering aid to Kibati camp where at least 50,000 displaced people were thought to be hiding in the bush, only managed to give refugees some soap and plastic jerry cans for holding water on Monday.

The 12-vehicle convoy then quickly continued on to the rebel-held town of Rutshuru in the east, sparking anger among the refugees who were hoping for food.

UN officials admitted there were serious problems with hunger at Kibati camp, but said their priority was resupplying clinics looted by retreating government troops.

Gloria Fernandez, head of the UN office for the co-ordination of humanitarian affairs (OCHA) in Congo, said medical supplies and tablets to purify water were the priority in this shipment.

Another convoy on Tuesday would be bringing food for some of the 250,000 refugees displaced by fighting, she said.

Healthcare priority

"Our priority is to restart the activities at many health centres in the area of Rutshuru and Kiwanja. We're taking health supplies, water, and sanitation," she said.

Health clinics north of Goma had been "looted and completely destroyed", leaving the Rutshuru hospital, about 75km north of Goma, as the only operating medical facility in a region of hundreds of thousands of people, Fernandez said.

Aid agencies said officials travelling with the convoy would assess emergency needs  in preparation for further humanitarian efforts.

Sean Raster, a logistics officials with the British medical charity Merlin, said: "We want to look at the security situation and gradually introduce our programmes."

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.

Seeking food

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

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"Everybody is hungry, everybody," said Jean Bizy, a 25-year-old teacher who said he had been surviving on wild bananas for days.

Boniface Ndayumujinya, an elderly man, said he and his eight family members had had nothing to eat for five 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 Programme 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.

The aid convoy was given the go ahead after government troops and fighters from the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) promised to allow it safe passage from Goma.

Alain Leroy, the head of UN peacekeeping operations, told Al Jazeera that the world body would "do the maximum" to protect civilians in Goma.
  
"It's our mandate to protect the civilians in Goma. We have already started, we are continuing to reinforce our operation in Goma to protect civilians," he said.
  
Envoy appointed

Meanwhile, Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, announced that he was appointing Olusegun Obasanjo, the former president of Nigeria, as his special envoy to help defuse the crisis.

The soap and water were distributed amid fears of a cholera epidemic [AFP]
Ban also said that he would travel to the region this weekend for talks with Joseph Kabila, the president of the DRC, and Paul Kagame, his Rwandan counterpart.

The UN efforts come as authorities in the provincial capital declared a curfew in Goma.

It is said to come into effect from 11pm (21:00 GMT) to 5am (03:00 GMT), following a spate of murders, rapes and lootings last week blamed on elements of the government army.

"I confirm the establishment of a curfew throughout the city of Goma to better control the morning and night-time movements of the population," said Julien Paluku, governor of the eastern North Kivu  province.

The region has seen a mass movement of people in recent days as they have tried to find a safe haven from an offensive by the CNDP, led by Laurent Nkunda, a renegade general who says he is fighting to protect the region's ethnic Tutsis.

Government blamed

According to a CNDP spokesman, the government of the DRC initiated the conflict and has "launched war on its people", by refusing to negotiate with Nkunda's forces.

"In rejecting the offer of direct dialogue with the CNDP, as recommended by the parliament, the government has just confirmed its militarist position," Bertrand Bisimwa said.

But Kinshasa rejected the accusations.

Many people who fled their villages due to the fighting in North Kivu province found themselves in makeshift camps around Goma, but these then emptied as the government forces crumbled in the face of the CNDP advance.

"Most of these people fled the camps in fear and in panic as they heard that troops were advancing on the area," Fernandez said. "There was considerable panic in the area."

Al Jazeera's Mohammed Adow, reporting from Goma, said that a spokesman for the CNDP said that the rebels did not want to see anyone in the camps.

"He says that is not where the people are supposed to be. He says they should go back home, tend their livestock and cultivate their land, live their normal lives," Adow said.

"They are also leaving voluntarily because of desperation and lack of food."

Humanitarian corridors

Nkunda announced the opening of "humanitarian corridors" through rebel lines, as a ceasefire he declared on Wednesday appeared to be holding.

The main road linking Goma and Rutshuru was again packed with people on Sunday as some of the displaced people tried to return to their villages.

"We received no food, so we are returning," Paul Bashoboye Bareke, walking with his wife and their eight children, said.

European and US envoys travelled across the region over the weekend in an attempt to find a diplomatic resolution to the crisis.

David Miliband, the British foreign minister, and his French counterpart Bernard Kouchner met Jakaya Kikwete, the Tanzanian president and chairman of the African Union, on Sunday following talks with Joseph Kabila, the DR Congo president, and Paul Kagame, the Rwandan leader.

Kabila and Kagame have agreed to attend a summit in Nairobi, Kenya, next week to discuss the conflict, which Kinshasa accuses Kigali of supporting by aiding Nkunda's forces.

Rwanda denies any involvement in the fighting, but the Uruguayan military commander who oversees his country's deployment in DR Congo has suggested that Nkunda has Rwandan tanks and artillery.

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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