Aid convoy finds east Congo refugee camps empty

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"RUTSHURU, Congo (Reuters) November 3 – A U.N. relief convoy which entered a
rebel-captured zone of east Congo on Monday for the first time since heavy fighting last week found deserted refugee camps emptied of their tens of thousands of occupants.

“All the camps are empty. They have all left. All the shelters have been destroyed … nothing remains,” Francis Nakwafio Kasai, a field officer with the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told Reuters.

The U.N. convoy, carrying aid workers and medical supplies and escorted by U.N. troops, crossed the conflict front line in Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern North Kivu province to reach the rebel-held town of Rutshuru. The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR had said it feared that at least 50,000 displaced civilians may have abandoned, or been forced out of, unprotected camps around Rutshuru, which is 70 km (45 miles) north of the North Kivu provincial capital Goma.

Kasai said humanitarian workers were trying to establish whether the camps’ occupants were expelled, or had fled. Some may have sought safer areas, or returned home, he said. Many were feared to be roaming the bush, seeking shelter and help after fleeing attacks by Tutsi fighters loyal to rebel General Laurent Nkunda. The U.N. says renegade Congolese army soldiers have also carried out killings, lootings and rapes."

Hungry Congo refugees angry no food in UN convoy

"KIBATI, Congo (AP) November 3 – Hungry refugees cheered when the first
humanitarian convoy in a week arrived at their camp Monday, but the jubilation
turned to anger when U.N. workers dumped only soap and plastic jerry cans
instead of food and sped on past rebel lines.

U.N. officials conceded that hunger at the Kibati camp, where tens of thousands sheltered from fighting in eastern Congo, was dire but said the first priority was to resupply medical clinics looted by retreating government troops.

“Are we supposed to eat this?” demanded Boniface Ndayumujinya, an elderly man waving a bundle of spring onions brought by a friend. He said he was with eight family members who had not eaten in five days.

U.N. peacekeepers escorted the 12-vehicle convoy carrying medical supplies north from the provincial capital of Goma, past Kibati and on to Rutshuru, a village 55 miles 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 for the hospital in Rutshuru were the priority, she said. She said the other health clinics north of Goma had been “looted and completely destroyed,” leaving the Rutshuru hospital as the only operating medical facility in a region of hundreds of thousands of people.

Fernandez said some 250,000 refugees had been displaced by the recent fighting in the east of this vast central African nation. Late Monday, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs at U.N. headquarters in New York said an aid convoy had reached Rutshuru. The convoy carried first aid and basic medicines to re-open health centers in the region. The U.N. said some of the camps around Rutshuru had been destroyed.

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 as the U.N. convoy stopped to deliver a sack of potatoes to U.N. peacekeepers in Rugari. Bizy said he had been surviving on wild bananas for days.

Thousands of children lined up for hours Monday expecting to get high-energy biscuits but were only given tokens to be used to get food later, said Onesphore Sematumba, of local think tank Pole Institute. “We really need to rethink 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 last week. “Friday and Saturday were 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 food was destroyed by soldiers before the town fell 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. Early Tuesday, a U.N. official accused Rwanda‘a army of firing tank shells and other artillery across the border last week at Congolese troops fighting Nkunda’s force.

Congo’s government has repeatedly accused Rwanda of supporting Nkunda, but the comment by U.N. spokeswoman Sylvie van den Wildenberg in Goma was the first time the U.N. has publicly said Rwanda was overtly involved in the conflict. Rwanda denies its military is involved. On Friday, Gen. Jorge Rosales, chief of Uruguay’s army, said rebel troops “have tanks and heavy artillery” from Rwanda and that intelligence reports “indicate there are soldiers from that country integrated in the rebel forces.”

Despite fears the war could widen, combat has subsided in recent days. The conflict is fueled by festering ethnic hatred left over from Rwanda’s 1994 genocide and Congo’s civil wars in 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, 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. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Monday that he expected to meet this weekend or early next week with Congolese President Joseph Kabila and Rwandan President Paul Kagame to discuss ways to resolve the conflict. He said both had agreed to the meeting.

In what appeared to be a political move, Nkunda declared he was opening a humanitarian corridor to allow aid through and to let refugees go 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 last week, have not ventured much beyond Kibati, 4 miles outside the city. Some are living among the refugees, creating a tense and dangerous situation.

Both government and rebel forces are accused of gross human rights abuses. 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 moved in the other direction, south from camps around Rutshuru that the refugees said the rebels were forcing them to leave at gunpoint. U.N. officials say the rebels 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 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."

via Quaker Dave.

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