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Update No. 97/03 on ICRC activities related to the Zairian conflict

06-03-1997 Operational Update

Following the latest advances of the Alliance troops, an estimated 200,000 refugees are on the move again. After having travelled several hundred kilometres on foot, always on the run from the advancing frontlines, they have become extremely weak. On 1 March, aid workers were once more forced to abandon these refugees. The ICRC is deeply concerned about their fate, and a secure place, where aid can be brought to them on a regular basis, now has become an utmost priority.

Four months after the conflict started, refugees and displaced persons are scattered in small groups over a huge area, stretching more than 1000 km from north to south along the provinces of Haut-Zaire, Kivu (Maniema) and Shaba. Scared by what has happened to them they are hiding in remote places and often do not dare to approach aid workers.

Access to the victims of this conflict thus remains extremely difficult, not least owing to the rapidly changing frontlines. The volatile security environment, logistical complications and the fact that usually separate authorizations from civilian and military authorities have to be obtained for each operation constitute other major obstacles. This applies to the governmental zones as well as to the rebel-held areas.

 Ongoing activities in the conflict area  

From its subdelegations in Goma, Bukavu, Uvira and Lubumbashi, ICRC teams are constantly trying to reach victims.

In order to be operational in this rapidly changing environment, a flying team has been based in Lubumbashi. A Beechcraft and a DC-3 are used along the changing frontlines, allowing rapid assessment and prompt forwarding of assistance. During a recent visit to the town of Kongolo some 1,000 victims of the conflict were identified and food and non-food emergency assistance was brought to them on 4 March.

The team also visited Kindu from 18 to 23 February. Invited by the local authorities, it participated in a meeting in Kalima on 22 February in order to co-ordinate assistance to the 25,000 victims of war located in the area. These efforts came to an abrupt end when Kalima was taken over by the rebels that same day and the refugees and displaced persons fled the area or went into hiding in the surroundings. However, before leaving Kindu food and non-food assistance was distributed to some 5,000 victims having reached Kindu overnight.

From Bukavu, an ICRC team participated in a field mission to Kingulube, 148 km west of Bukavu, together with other humanitarian organizations. It took the team two days to reach the area. Some 50,000 refugees are expected to move along this axis towards Bukavu over the coming weeks. The people met by the team were in very poor health. Medical structures along the road and in Kingulube were lacking the most essential drugs and equipment as well as qualified staff. The ICRC provided first-aid kits, and basic training was given to staff. In addition, ten Zairian Red Cross volunteers were recruited and instructed on how to promote public health in emergencies.

 Tracing (in Kivu)  

Despite last years massive return of Rwandan refugees, the ICRC's tracing work is far from complete. Apart from relocating unaccompanied children who got lost before and during the 1996 mass return, delegates and Zairian Red Cross volunteers daily register new cases of Rwandan and Zairian unaccompanied children. The Rwandan children are transferred regularly to Rwanda, where efforts are made to reunite them with their families. In contrast, the Zairian children are placed in foster families while waiting for news from their parents.

 Relief  (in governmental and rebel-held areas)  

During week eight, food and non-food assistance was distributed to some 6,400 victims of the conflict in and around Bukavu. High-energy biscuits were handed out to people along the Walungu axis (south-west of Bukavu).

Assistance continued to displaced Zairians from Kalemie who have reached Kasumbalesa transit camp (south of Lubumbashi) after crossing through Zambian territory.

 Health activities (in Kivu)  

The ICRC has continued to ensure the treatment of patients at the hospitals of Goma, Bukavu and Uvira. Medicines and material are distributed regularly, particularly in Uvira, where a large order of medical supplies was received during week eight to cope with an increase in admissions to the nutrition ward.

From Bukavu and its surroundings, ICRC has regularly organised evacuation of sick or injured Rwandan refugees willing to return to Rwanda.

In Goma, follow-up visits to all seven health centres have taken place. Their medical activities continue normally. Delegates have also visited hospitals and health centres in Kayna, Kirotshe, Bitonga, Rushoga and Rwanguba (all near Goma) to assess and follow-up the situation there.

Three weeks after reopening the ICRC office in Uvira, 85% of the health centres in the area have been evaluated and supplied with medicines and materials, thus allowing the local health personnel to continue its activities.

 Water and sanitation (in Kivu)  

The ICRC is assisting the water treatment plants in Goma, Bukavu and Uvira with chemicals and by carrying out emergency repairs. It is also assessing the water and sanitation situation of health facilities and other infrastructure.

After the Uvira water treatment plant broke down on 21 February, the ICRC immediately organised workers to dig out and clean a blocked water catchment device. Three days later, the people of Uvira were again benefiting from clean drinking water.