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Congo: Emergency operation for Rwandan refugees

15-05-1997 News Release 97/18

The ICRC has launched a temporary and exceptional operation to assist thousands of Rwandan refugees who are crossing the Zaire River into Congo, many of them in an appalling state of health. The refugees, who have walked through Zaire along jungle paths, are gathering near the Congolese fishing village of Liranga, where there is no drinking water, food or shelter for them.

The riverside village, surrounded by forests and swampland, is accessible only by boat or helicopter. An ICRC team from Brazzaville which carried out a survey in Liranga between 8  and 12 May found that over 3,000 refugees had been registered by the local authorities and several hundred more were arriving in the area each day. On the other side of the river, upwards of 20,000 are said to be waiting to cross -- provided they can pay local boatmen for the passage. Those with no money, or who are too sick to go any further, are left behind in Zaire.

Karen Thibaud, a member of the ICRC team on the spot, said the refugees were physically exhausted and malnourished. " There are likely to be many more crossing in the coming days, and they will need help urgently. We shall try to meet their immediate needs, but if we are to assist them in the longer term they will have to leave this area, which is barely suitable as a place of transit. "

On 12 May the ICRC sent a first helicopter-load of food to Liranga. The following day a cargo plane arrived in the Congolese capital, Brazzaville, with 11 tonnes of high-protein biscuits, medical supplies and water/sanitation mater ial. This will be taken by a smaller aircraft to Lukolela, a missionary station with an airstrip some 80 kilometres south of Liranga.

The ICRC is in contact with the Congolese authorities, UNHCR and other organizations with a view to coordinating the operation for the refugees.