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Refugees Magazine Issue 110 (Crisis in the Great Lakes) - Eyewitness - The stench of disease and death ... engulfed us ...

Refugees Magazine Issue 110 (Crisis in the Great Lakes) - Eyewitness - The stench of disease and death ... engulfed us ...
Refugees (110, IV - 1997)

1 December 1997
One smelled the disaster first.

Dianne Stewart helped load refugees onto an ancient train to escape the terrors of the rainforests near Kisangani. Her report:

One smelled Biaro first, long before it came into view.

It took three hours to reach the Biaro encampment from Kisangani, an hour to cross the river by an ancient ferry and then two bumpy hours over a dirt rollercoaster.

Before we rounded the final bend into the site, the stench of disease and death, mixed with the smoke of thousands of cooking fires, engulfed us.The impenetrable rainforest canopy allowed nothing to escape the heat and horror of Biaro.

My first sight each day as I drove into the encampment was the neatly stacked piles of body bags the Red Cross team had collected since early morning. They were the previous night's casualties. The number and size of those piles always set the tone for the day.

My responsibility was THE TRAIN, an ancient diesel pulling cattle wagons often held together with bits of twisted, rusty wire. More than 100 refugees suffocated to death on one overcrowded journey in May and since then UNHCR and Red Cross workers had accompanied each ride to avoid another catastrophe.

The loading point was at the far end of the camp and it was never easy getting through the site.

The road was carved into the surrounding forests and became virtually submerged by the rain and constant movement of trucks. As we drove through, there was no escaping the misery and desperation of the refugees, huddled in makeshift shelters, half-starved, exhausted and wounded.

We began work immediately, marshalling evacuees for that day. We were never certain how many wagons would arrive from Kisangani, but whatever the number, it was always difficult to turn people away from the train.

Everyone was terrified. Everyone wanted to leave the forest. And almost every day someone would beg on their knees for the last place on the train.

When you are faced with a refugee so thin, the skin is stretched like paper across the bones, whose achilles heel is oozing from a machete wound inflicted during the flight through the forest - what does one do?

Loading people was a lengthy and complicated process. Often, I resorted to lifting adult men and women single-handedly into a wagon; they were light as a feather.

The trip to Kisangani was generally uneventful, apart from occasional stone-throwing by locals.

Once a young boy's face was badly slashed by overhanging bamboo. As I attempted to patch his face together, he tugged constantly on a thin cord attached to his wrist and his only remaining possession - a neatly wrapped bible.

I was amazed anyone who had lived through such an experience could still believe in anything. I saw him later leaving a transit centre. His by-now professionally bandaged face was still impassive, emotionless, silent.

I often wonder what he was thinking.

We evacuated around 17,000 refugees by train while I was there. One very small baby died and two were born. Towards the end we did get refugees, especially children, to sing and that was really bizarre - a train of misery chugging through the forests with the most beautiful harmonised songs floating from the wagons.

I didn't have many answers to refugees questions about conditions in Rwanda, but I think most were reconciled to going home.

The evacuation ended. Biaro was an eerie site once it emptied. Local villagers picked it clean and the jungle quickly began to reclaim the site for itself. Soon, the graves will be covered, too, and barely a trace will remain of the sad human history of this place.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 110 (1997)