UNHCR launches action programme for Eastern Zaire
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees mobilized on Thursday emergency relief aid for up to 100,000 Rwandan and Burundi refugees reported to be sheltering in Zaire's Shabunda area.
A seven-member mission is poised to proceed to Shabunda from Kinshasa over the weekend to coordinate urgent relief for these refugees - the first major group to be located since hundreds of thousands dispersed in eastern Zaire last month.
Over the weekend, the International Committee of the Red Cross identified up to 100,000 refugees in Shabunda, 175 kilometres west of the eastern Zairian town of Bukavu. Since then a UN mission, including UNHCR, has reported that while 10,000 of these refugees are in Shabunda town, the majority are in several pockets along the road farther east. Field reports indicate that many of the refugees are malnourished and are suffering from various diseases.
UNHCR is sending high-energy biscuits, blankets, plastic sheets, medical kits and water equipment from its warehouses in Entebbe, Uganda, for emergency airlift to Shabunda. The World Food Programme is providing emergency food rations.
Relief agencies, including ICRC, have already begun providing emergency assistance to the refugees in Shabunda town. The UNHCR team will look into the possibility of extending relief to the large concentrations of refugees outside the town. One major aim is to find ways of helping those who wish to return to Rwanda to do so.
"This is the first time we have located a significant number of refugees in the dense tropical forest of Zaire and we are doing everything we can to help them," High Commissioner Sadako Ogata said. However, she said the Shabunda operation would present major logistical challenges that would stretch the resources of humanitarian agencies.
"There are hundreds of thousands of refugees who remain unaccounted for and we need to reach them. We need to provide them urgent relief and help them go back to their country. We need help from everyone to get to them," she said.
UNHCR cared for some 1.2 million refugees in eastern Zaire before fighting broke in the region in October. An estimated 560,000 Rwandan refugees have returned to Rwanda since the middle of last month. Another 60,000 Burundi refugees have gone back to Burundi. UNHCR has received unconfirmed reports, mostly based on aerial reconnaissance, of large refugee concentrations in Zaire, but the group at Shabunda has been verified.
UNHCR has had no contacts with large numbers of refugees since they began abandoning camps in eastern Zaire's Uvira region two months ago. Although the agency has reestablished a presence in the Goma and Bukavu regions, staff movements have been hampered by difficult terrain and continuing insecurity.
Large numbers of refugees have also been reported heading toward the interior of Zaire beyond north Kivu, making the task of reaching them in the dense forest and hills more difficult.