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UN Rushes Aid to Congo - 2002-01-21

United Nations humanitarian organizations are rushing aid to Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They hope to reach hundreds of thousands displaced by the volcanic eruption and lava flow near the town of Goma.

U.N. aid agencies say they are working around the clock to distribute relief supplies to some 50,000 people seeking shelter in Rwanda and as many as 300,000 who have moved back to Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo, after last week's devastating volcanic eruption.

Conditions in Goma are grim. There is little food, no drinkable water and no electricity.

The U.N. refugee agency says it has distributed blankets, plastic sheeting and other supplies to displaced people in Gisenyi, Rwanda.

Millicent Mutuli of the UNHCR says the refugee agency is moving more supplies in from Tanzania to aid some 15,000 displaced families. She says UNHCR is also opening up another transit camp. "The camp is at a place call Nkamira, 25 kilometers outside of Gisenyi," she said. "The camp has got sanitation facilities. It has got water. We have made this available for use by the Rwandan government."

Goma is in ruins since Thursday's volcanic eruption spewed molten lava destroying virtually everything it touched. The U.N. has expressed concern that the volcano could erupt again.

The U.N. children's agency, UNICEF, says more than half of the people affected are children under the age of 15. A number may have been separated from their families in the rush to leave Goma. Spokeswoman Wivina Belmonte says UNICEF is working with local authorities to identify unaccompanied children and reunite them with their families.

Ms. Belmonte says UNICEF has also shipped in 88 tons of emergency supplies, including tents, purification tablets and medicine, to stave off dehydration and potential death from diarrhea. "A lot of children in the area are malnourished," she said. "They have very little in the way of resources to fight back any infections they might get. So clean water is absolutely necessary. Something as simple as diarrhea can kill a child under the age of five. We need to make sure that does not happen."

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies says water and sanitation problems must be resolved to ward off outbreaks of cholera and malaria. Dr. Hakan Sandbladh of the Red Cross adds there is also concern that volcanic fumes and ash could cause severe respiratory problems. "Normally acute respiratory track infections are of major concern in this area because of the living conditions," said Hakan Sandbladh. "Now, with the pollution and acidity and other problems, that would be a major issue. That is what we are trying to focus on in our basic health care intervention."

The Red Cross has launched an appeal of nearly $1 million to provide relief and health care services to Congolese victims of the volcano eruption.