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Sunday, 20 January, 2002, 17:38 GMT
Cholera fear for volcano refugees
Lake Kivu
Lava pouring into the lake could stir up poisonous gases
The president of the Democratic Republic of Congo has announced a million-dollar aid package to help the victims of a devastating volcanic eruption, as fears mount that many of the displaced may succumb to disease.

UN officials are particularly worried that people have been drinking contaminated water from Lake Kivu, and that this could cause an outbreak of cholera.


There is no food, no water, no sanitation. We are here like animals

Refugee Richard Mwambo
A major cholera epidemic followed the last eruption of Mount Nyiragongo in 1977.

Both the water treatment plants in the town of Goma have been destroyed by lava and there is a serious shortage of drinking water.

The lake water, which was already dirty, has been further poisoned by molten lava which has poured through Goma and into the lake.

A woman carrying bundles and baby as she flees Goma
Refugees have been streaming in both directions
Powerful earth tremors are still being felt on both sides of the Congo-Rwanda border, but experts are divided as to whether there is further risk to the town.

Thousands of refugees have defied warnings and have been streaming back from the overcrowded camps which have been set up in neighbouring Rwanda.

"There is no food, no water, no sanitation. We are here like animals," said Richard Mwambo, a teacher who was preparing to board a ferry to the Congolese town of Bukavu.

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"[We are] afraid of dying. If we are to die, it is better to die in Congo, not Rwanda."

Aid

President Joseph Kabila said funds to the tune of 450m Congolese francs ($1.3m) would be made available immediately, stressing that he was prepared to help Congolese people wherever they were - even in rebel-held territory like Goma.

Goma
Many people have lost their homes
He also announced that a government delegation would be sent to the region as soon as possible, if the rebels and their Rwandan backers allow ministers to cross the frontline.

If the mission is realised, it will be the first time that such a visit has taken place since war broke out in 1998.

The international aid which has arrived so far has been limited.

Aid agencies are warning that the return of many of the estimated 400,000 people displaced by the volcano is complicating the distribution of supplies because it was still too dangerous to set up in Goma.

UN and World Food Programme (WFP) officials said they had distributed biscuits and water to some of the estimated 300,000 refugees in Gisenyi on the Rwandan side of the border.

British aid workers have also arrived with water purification equipment.

Agencies arealso planning to start handing out maize, beans and oil.

Twenty-six metric tons of plastic sheeting, blankets and other basics are due to arrive, but officials admitted the overwhelming majority of refugees would be spending a fourth night in the open.

Poisonous gases

Lake Kivu is not only a dangerous drinking source; it is also potentially explosive.

Experts have warned that the lava flowing into the water is stirring up gases that exist naturally in the lake which could either bubble up or explode, killing people close to the shore.

Boat to Bukavu, Congo
Boats returning to DR Congo are dangerously overcrowded
It is estimated that as much as 80% of the normally bustling eastern Congolese town has been destroyed.

UN officials say about 45 people died after Thursday's unexpected eruption, and concern has grown over the fate of the inhabitants of at least 14 villages north of the town, which were destroyed by lava.

Refugees who have chosen to make the perilous journey from Rwanda back to Goma have been piling onto dangerously overcrowded boats and sailing across Lake Kivu.

They are even returning on foot - picking gingerly over the thin crust of hot lava, "and just running if it gets too hot", said a spokesperson for the World Vision relief agency.

Correspondents say many appear reluctant to accept help from Rwanda, which has given military backing to Congolese rebels.

The BBC's Andrew Harding says many people in Goma have nowhere to sleep tonight.

People are scavenging for bits of metal and other debris they can hammer together into some form of temporary accommodation.

Others are planning to spend the night in the local church.




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 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Andrew Harding in Goma
"People seem determined to return to this apocalyptic landscape"
World Food Programme's Laura Mello
"This is a natural disaster no one has any control over"
Christian Aid's Tara Mascarenhas
"Goma is the social and economic hub of the region"

Talking PointTALKING POINT
Congo volcano
Tell us about your experiences
See also:

20 Jan 02 | Africa
In pictures: Eruption aftermath
15 Mar 00 | Europe
Living with a volcano
19 Feb 99 | Sci/Tech
Volcano teaches deadly lessons
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