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Cholera Feared Among Congolese Fleeing Volcano - 2002-01-20

Thousands of refugees who fled the Congolese city of Goma after a nearby volcano erupted, are trying to return home. Aid agencies are warning of a possible outbreak of cholera as up to half a million residents of Goma no longer have access to clean water or sanitation facilities.

When the volcano erupted Thursday, most of the city's residents fled across the border to the Rwandan town of Gisenyi. About 300,000 people have spent the past three nights sleeping on the streets or by the lakeshore.

Thousands have now decided to take their chances and return to home. Most have had nothing to eat since they fled their homes, and their only drinking water comes from the heavily polluted Lake Kivu.

Oxfam's regional policy coordinator for East and Central Africa, Rob Wilkinson, says aid agencies are warning that it is not yet safe to return to Goma.

"here were two large explosions last night ... and there are clouds of debris in the air and intense smell of gases," he explained. "So it is not clear that [the eruption] is finished yet, and there is potential for new lava streams and new fissures. [And] people are walking over cooling lava streams which apparently, they tell me on the field, that that is akin to walking on ice where the crust could break and you could go through."

Aid agencies say they cannot distribute food in Goma because it is too dangerous. They want people to wait for camps to be set up in Rwanda, where aid workers will be able to deliver food, water and sanitation facilities.

But many Congolese say it is better to go back home. One refugee said they were living like animals and he would rather die in Congo than in Rwanda. The two countries are still technically at war.

Mr. Wilkinson says the aid agencies' greatest fear is that there could be a cholera epidemic. "Right now there is a large movement of people back towards Goma on the Congo side of the border. It seems like people are ready to move back and see if there is anything left of their houses, if their belongings have not been looted," he explained. "So that is making the tasks a little bit harder, to set up camps to deliver aid directly to people. And our first priority right now is for clean water and sanitation to prevent the outbreak of water related diseases."

In 1994, an outbreak of dysentery and cholera in refugee camps in Goma killed 50,000 people who were fleeing genocide in Rwanda.