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Documentary : The Goma Camps: An African Tragedy : A correspondent finds 'the final horror of the Rwandan refugee nightmare.'

August 02, 1994|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GOMA, Zaire — From the road, about 50 yards away, it looked like a busy construction site. A huge, yellow front-end loader belched black diesel smoke and roared about, while a smaller backhoe growled as it dug nearby.

But up close, I found the final horror of the Rwandan refugee nightmare the most grotesque scene in nearly two weeks of witnessing unimaginable pain and death. Especially death.

Only God knows how many of the million or more Rwandan refugees who reached this Zairian border town have died here so far. U.N. officials use a figure of 20,000, but they don't know. They blame a cholera epidemic for the corpses that appeared by the hundreds, or the thousands, along the roads each day. But again, they don't know.

Some refugees died of dehydration, their lips parched and faces contorted in pain. Others fell to measles or dysentery. Some simply keeled over, too weak after days without food or water, and too exhausted by days of walking, walking, endless walking.

How many simply died of anguish, alone and afraid in a living hell of volcanic rocks and gut-wrenching misery? Even worse, how many were buried alive, swept up by burial crews while sick or sleeping? On my last day here, I met a boy who was pulled alive from a mass grave.

Each day, trucks drive down the road to collect the corpses and ferry them to mass graves bulldozed beside the main road at the airstrip. Then crews toss the bodies one by one into the foul trenches, corpse upon corpse, tumbling down into a ghastly jumble of flesh and bone and rag, like garbage on a heap.

Last Friday, as usual, French soldiers arrived to bulldoze dirt over the mound of rotting bodies dumped in a grave the night before. Many were wrapped in blood-soaked rush mats, tattered gray blankets or rags soaked with the stench of death.

Then one bundle began moving.

"The soldier thought it was a rat, so it he hit it with a stick," said Christian Clark, a UNICEF worker. "And it began to cry."

The boy has spindly legs and his knees are painfully swollen by rickets, so he walks without bending them, stiffly, like a crane. His face is covered with scabs. He looks about six, but weighs about 15 pounds, say the doctors at the French army clinic where the boy is cared for.

As he stands, he wobbles weakly and a filthy diaper sags and then drops onto his feet. He stands mute in his feces until a nun pulls off his shirt, leads him by the hand and gently washes him in a tub. His ribs and spine are tiny bumps and ridges against his emaciated back, and his spider-thin hand clutches the woman's dress.

He says nothing now except his name--Ntibagirirwa. His eyes seem dim and glazed, his lips thin and tight, his secret hell locked inside. His future, at least, is assured. The French lieutenant who found him has decided to adopt him.

I met Ntibagirirwa while making the morning rounds aboard a white UNICEF truck. Each morning at 8:30, it rumbles up to Munigi, which has become an infamous cholera death camp, where thousands died in days on a moonscape of black volcanic rocks. Then it stops at the French army compound, by a church in town, and elsewhere, searching for orphans and unaccompanied children.

So far, UNICEF and other agencies have collected about 8,000 unattended Rwandan children and put them in 11 orphanages and care centers. They estimate another 20,000 are still living alone in the streets and fields. But again, they're guessing. No one knows the depths of pain here.

"Some of these kids were at their mother's breast when we picked them up, but the mother had been dead for two days," said Clark, the UNICEF aide. A few have died on the truck. Even fewer have been reunited with their families.

On this day, the truck picked up 35 children in less than an hour, including a dozen with a large blue O marked on their foreheads. Camp doctors mark them so others will know: They are orphans. Three are infants, wrapped in blankets on the truck floor.

One of the oldest children was naked. He sat at the back of the truck, his legs pulled up to his chest. His name is Cyprian Bigirimana and he is 12. Once he had eight brothers and sisters. Now, he doesn't know if they're alive. He only knows about his parents.

"My parents are dead," he said in a whisper. "They died in Goma. They died a week ago."

Covered in filth, his naked body laced with sores and scabs, Cyprian literally had nothing. He clutched a gray blanket in one hand, but it belonged to the little girl behind him. She sat with her huge eyes half closed, hugging the wheel well of the truck. Others sat crying, eyes wide with fear.

Clark, a cheerful 34-year-old Canadian, bustled about the truck as it lurched along, hugging the children and singing. Major relief agencies have been heavily criticized for the planning and pace of their operation here. I have nothing but awe for aid workers like Clark and his colleagues.

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