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Tuesday, 22 January, 2002, 18:05 GMT
Daunting task for Congo relief workers
Refugees flee the volcanic eruption
Villagers were forced to flee with what they could carry
By BBC News Online's Raffi Berg

Aid agencies say they are struggling to cope with the number of families needing help following a volcanic eruption in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Thousands of people left homeless by the disaster have descended on neighbouring towns in search of food and shelter.

They came to Sake with what they managed to carry with them - chickens, photographs of their children, mattresses on their heads

Alison Preston, World Vision
Many have reached the small town of Sake, about 30 km (19 miles) west of the devastated town of Goma, and are now dependent on aid organisations for their survival.

Aid agencies were already working in Sake, feeding children displaced by DRC's three-and-a-half year civil war.

Now, they say, the influx of refugees has stretched the town to breaking point.

"Sake is completely overstretched and unable to cope with the families' needs," Alison Preston from World Vision in Sake told BBC News Online.

"People are desperate for food. They have been pressing in close to the aid trucks and many people have been approaching us asking us for food," she said.

Communities uprooted

Ms Preston said the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo had created a human tragedy, forcing about 300,000 people out of surrounding villages, not knowing where to go.

Threatened by deadly lava flows, villagers fled east to Gisenyi in Rwanda, but, devoid of shelter, entire communities had to sleep, exposed, by the side of the road.

Most decided to go back to DRC to try to salvage what they could, but, finding their homes destroyed, they carried on walking until they arrived at Sake, exhausted, hungry and frightened.

"People have lost everything," said Ms Preston. "They came to Sake with what they managed to carry with them - chickens, photographs of their children, mattresses on their heads - whatever they had when they fled from Goma."

Living conditions

The refugees have been taken in by families living in Sake, but this has created another set of problems.

Displaced woman and child
Thousands of people walked to Rwanda and back

"The Congolese are very generous people, but there is now overcrowding and poor sanitation," Ms Preston said.

"In addition to the refugees, we also have to feed malnourished children from the host families," she said.

Sake's population has swelled from 28,000 before the eruption, to 48,000 with the arrival of the refugees.

Aid workers have suddenly had an extra 20,000 people to feed on a daily basis.

"We are providing them with maize, beans and oil to last them for 15 days," said Ms Preston.

"We have talked with community leaders to establish who is displaced and are making sure displaced families are the ones who are getting the food."

Town cut off

Getting the aid through to the needy is a logistical nightmare.

Sake has been split in half by the lava, making it impossible for aid agencies to reach the western side of the town by vehicle.

Staff and refugees have had to walk across paths of lava to get to isolated parts of the town.

Adverse conditions have compounded the aid agencies' task and the misery of the homeless.

It has been raining and the region has been hit by earthquakes for the past three nights.

Unexpected crisis

World Vision says it is doing what it can to alleviate the refugees' suffering but it says their plight is desperate.

Red Cross worker distributes aid
Aid agencies say they are stretched to breaking point
The agency, which runs the European Commission's aid wing - ECHO - in the town, had already committed $3m to look after families displaced by the war and is adding a further $3m to deal with the volcano crisis.

The most pressing need is for food, shelter and clean drinking water - relief workers have already begun distributing blankets donated by the US Government to protect against the cold and are preparing to hand out jerrycans.

The refugees have lost everything and have no homes to return to, a situation which the aid agencies are unexpectedly having to plan for.

"The emergency response is likely to go on for the long term," said Ms Preston, "and we are preparing for that."

Congo volcano
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See also:

22 Jan 02 | Africa
Volcano aid heads into Goma
22 Jan 02 | Health
Medical emergency in Goma
21 Jan 02 | Africa
UN warns against return to Goma
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