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Crisis bites for Goma refugees

By Peter Greste
BBC News, Goma

There have been scenes of chaos at refugee camps around Goma on 31 October 2008
Aid agencies do not have the resources to help all of those displaced in Goma

Out on the stony lava fields on Goma's northern fringes, a young woman is doubled over her naked two-year-old son.

She splashes cold, soapy water across his distended belly and down his spindly legs - the classic signs of severe malnutrition.

The boy cries gently and shivers with fever in the tropical sun.

Out here in the open, with tens of thousands of other desperate people crowded around, disease comes quickly and strikes hard.

"For three days now we've had no food, no water and no medicine," the boy's mother told me. "We're living without shelter in the rains."

"How can we survive? I don't care who is in charge any more. All I want is peace."

Right now that looks like a fantasy.

Goma is effectively cut off from the rest of the country: The city is backed into a corner with the Rwandan border to its east and Lake Kivu along the south.

The roads north and west belong to Tutsi rebel leader General Laurent Nkunda, while the only other route south is impassable.

One in six displaced

Goma had already been swollen with tens of thousands of displaced people sheltering from the conflict that simmered continually ever since the civil war officially ended in 2003.

A boy looks out from inside a box near a refugee camp near Goma on 31 October 2008
Some 1m of North Kivu's 6m-strong population are now displaced

But the past two months have forced perhaps 250,000 more from their homes, many of them into Goma and the camps on its fringes.

The total number of displaced in the province of North Kivu now stands at around 1 million out of a population of 6 million.

Now, all they want is to go back to their villages. General Nkunda offered to open a humanitarian corridor so they could do just that.

But in the morning, a few of the displaced ventured down the road on motorbikes to test the promise.

A man who gave his name as Hugo said he was getting worried.

"They haven't come back," he said. "We've tried to reach them on the phone and they don't answer. We're afraid they've been killed."

Disappearing refugees

But it is not just from Goma that displaced people have disappeared.

We might be able to trace some [refugees], but the rest have gone into the forest beyond the reach of anyone's help
Karl Steinacker
UNHCR

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees says it has credible reports that people sheltering in camps in areas under Gen Nkunda's control have been forced out and the buildings destroyed.

The rebels insist that people have left the camps because they feel safe enough to leave.

Whatever the truth, the fact remains they have effectively become invisible to aid agencies.

"We don't know where they are," said the UNHCR's regional coordinator Karl Steinacker.

"They've vanished. We might be able to trace some, but the rest have gone into the forest beyond the reach of anyone's help."

Even if aid agencies wanted to help, they cannot.

Most have sent their local staff home and evacuated everyone who does not have to be here.

They simply do not have the resources to help people in and around Goma, let alone those stuck behind General Nkunda's lines.

Frustrated diplomacy

Those aid workers who remain are crowded onto the floor of the heavily-guarded WFP compound each night sheltering from the Congolese government troops who spend the darkest hours looting and raping the very people they are meant to be protecting.

Men and women belonging to a Protestant church sing at a refugee camp near Goma on 31 October 2008
Many of the displaced have been praying for peace

A frustrated Alan Doss toured Goma with a patrol of UN peacekeepers.

As the UN Secretary General's special envoy to DR Congo, Ambassador Doss has one of the toughest jobs in diplomacy.

He has been tasked with negotiating an end to the war that has killed more people than any conflict since World War II.

On the dark and disturbingly quiet streets he shook his head.

"The peace process isn't working; it's broken," he said.

And as we walked, bursts of automatic gunfire interrupted the conversation, as if to underline his point.

"Government soldiers," he said. "Probably looting."

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