Eastern Zaire Situation is 'Precarious'

11/6/1996 12:00:00 AM

     CHICAGO (ELCA) -- "By all indications a severe human catastrophe is now unfolding in the closed off parts of Eastern Zaire," according to Action by Churches Together (ACT).   ACT describes the situation for 1.5 million people in Eastern Zaire as 'precarious.'  ACT is a worldwide network of churches, including the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), meeting human need through coordinated emergency response.
     "I'm afraid a lot of people are going to die in Eastern Zaire over the next week, and there is very little, if anything, we can do about it," said Richard Oaten from Nairobi, Kenya. Oaten is a member of the LWF staff responsible for coordinating refugee camps around Goma for ACT.  He evacuated to Nairobi along with 86 international aid workers and a number of others who left Goma Nov. 2.
     According to ACT, Oaten is "extremely worried" about the situation of more than one million refugees and civilian Zairians without humanitarian assistance in the war zone of Eastern Zaire.
     Prior to the evacuation, churches and agencies in the region were preparing staff, supplies and transportation for humanitarian response to the needs of refugees and displaced persons once the security situation in Eastern Zaire improved.
     When the aid workers left the area, the attacking forces had control of the entire route out of Goma and into Rwanda.  The 55- vehicle convoy drove to safety at the Rwandan capital of Kigali. From there the majority were airlifted to Nairobi.
     Since mid-September, events in Eastern Zaire have developed into open warfare between the Zaire military and the ethnic Tutsi people of Zaire known as Banyamulenge.  Observers in the region are alarmed at seeing a minor conflict escalate into major fighting.
     "We have absolutely no idea of the situation of approximately 400,000 refugees and displaced Zairians at Mugunga and Lac Vert camps," reported one ACT staff member in Goma.  He added, "Even less is known about the fate of the 314,000 refugees who are reported to have left or are still trying to leave the northern most camps of Kahindo and Katale some 60 kilometers north of Goma.
     ACT personnel expressed concern about more than 200 local ACT-related staff in Goma and the refugee camps.  "We have reason to believe that a big part of the staff is in relative safety further north at the Ugandan border, but we still need confirmation of that.  As to the 18 Zairian staff members in Goma their situation is unknown," says Oaten.  There is no confirmed information about staff remaining in the Bukavu area.
     ACT personnel in Goma witnessed the looting and destruction of offices of various relief agencies.  One ACT staff member said, "I guess our houses will be on the menu."
     According to ACT, no one knows what humanitarian agencies will face when they are able to gain access to the enormous roving populations in the stretch of Zaire running from Katale and Kahindo in the north, through Goma and the Bukavu areas, south to the towns, villages and former refugee camps at Uvira. The Rwandan (and some Burundian) refugees in Eastern Zaire alone number approximately 1.1 million.  Both Bukavu and Goma had civilian populations of 250,000 to 300,000 people.
     ACT's partners in the region are "extremely concerned" about the situation of the refugees, but they, like other humanitarian agencies, can only "observe the situation and raise resources." The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has pledged $100,000 toward the $1.8 million ACT has requested for an Eastern Zaire Emergency Appeal.
     LWF has stocked emergency supplies for up to 250,000 people in a warehouse in Kigali, Rwanda.  In both Uganda and Kenya ACT's partners are actively stockpiling relief items, and ACT is monitoring by air the situation west of Bukavu.  The LWF is a worldwide communion of 122 member churches, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
     Oaten spent his last two days in Goma with other international aid workers in two United Nations houses on the shore of Lake Kivu.  Even in that compound there was only relative safety.  "On Friday a car with Zairian soldiers crashed through our gates, and the four soldiers in the car were killed by pursuing forces," Oaten said.
     "Earlier the same day the Zairians fired heavy guns from or very nearby our compound, and this attracted fire from a Rwandan gunboat on the lake.  Luckily only the buildings were hit.  On Sunday morning, just an hour before we finally left, rockets were fired at the houses from the Zairian side.  It seemed to us that the rockets were aimed specifically at us, but they had aimed too high, and the rockets exploded above the buildings.  Still -- it was a very frightening experience," Oaten said.

For information contact: Ann Hafften, Dir., ELCA News Service, (312)
380-2958 or AHAFFTEN@ELCA.ORG; Frank Imhoff, Assoc. Dir., (312)
380-2955 or FRANKI@ELCA.ORG


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