Refugee Camp in Rwanda

by Steve Abbott

This abridged version is about half the size of Steve's original report. Those wishing the complete version may contact Steve or Anne Marie Zilliacus, the Editor of The Canadian Friend

The tears were a necessary part of the story, if only because I had held them off for so long. Tonight the tears seem to be back to help me tell the story.

I RETURNED FROM GOMA, ZAIRE on the 25th of September. I have been wanting to write this account for all of you ever since, but found it very hard. For the first week or two I could not begin without crying. I didn't feel apologetic as it seemed the most natural reaction to feelings that had been put on hold, and shocks not reacted to for so many weeks. After that came a time when I could talk about it without crying. That was worse, for I felt guilty for not crying. Somehow, too, the tears were a necessary part of the story, if only because I had held them off for so long. Tonight the tears seem to be back to help me tell the story.

Last July, as the crisis in Rwanda unfolded, I watched the news with a growing conviction that I should be offering my help. I had previously worked for Oxfam, UK, as a water engineer in the refugee camps in Somalia. I knew that if I contacted Oxfam the request for me to come would come back very quickly. My wife, Andrea, had not seen the news herself for several days. When she did, her reaction was the same as mine. I suppose you might say that it was natural that I left and she stayed, as the children and I could not bear to have her leave for two months. We struggled and wept over the decision that night, but not out of doubt. It seemed clear from the time we first spoke of it that one of us would go.

The following morning I called Oxfam and a few hours after my fax (Friday July 22), I got a call asking me to come.

I flew on Monday night to London, and caught an early morning bus to Oxford. On Thursday a taxi drove me to Midlands airport where a Russian Aleutian cargo plane (a converted military craft) was loading supplies for a charter flight to Goma.

The Russian crew spoke practically no English and lack of communication seems to have made our arrival in Goma about the scariest moment of the whole trip. We accidentally touched down at Gisenye airport, a couple of kilometres from Goma and across the border in Rwanda. The pilot saw the runway was sandbagged and took off again, clipping a tree on one side. Then the plane circled for about 40 minutes preparing to try again at Goma airfield.

When we did land, it was with the wind, opposite to the normal traffic circulation on the runway. We came to a stop facing a plane that was preparing to take off from the other end of the runway. It was about 4:30 in the afternoon of Friday the 29th when we arrived and got a ride to Goma. The roads in Goma were crowded with refugees so that one could barely see where the road was meant to be. There was a smell of sickness and death all about.

That evening a meeting was held at our hotel to discuss peoples reactions and the stresses and shocks they had to face in the camps. The best advice was to regard loss of sleep and the various effects of the shocking suffering and death as normal and expected.

John Howard (who some Canadian Friends will remember as a nine year old when his family lived in Toronto for a while) and two other lead emergency people had arrived some 7 days before us. I am not sorry to have missed the scenes they had endured in that time.

John and the governor of North Kivu had inspected a lava plain some 25 kilometres north of the great mass of refugees at Kibumba, and the governor had said that the refugees would be allowed to camp there. John introduced me to the site the following morning. I was to be the only site leader with the luxury of time before the refugees arrived to plan, design and build a water treatment and distribution system on a new site.

We started out designing for 200,000 refugees to move from the congested camp at Kibumba to Katale South, or Kayindo as it came to be called. I found a water source suitable for that number, but we soon revised the expectations down to 50 - 60,000, both because there was not such a broad expanse of land available, and because we decided that the huge size of some of these camps was largely to blame for much of the social breakdown and violence rampant there. I have heard recently that about 100,000 people are now living there. Kibumba was about 30 km north of Goma where some 300 - 350,000 people, who had been directed north when they crossed the border at Goma, had lost heart and strength to go on.

About 32 km farther on was Katale camp, a place where some people who had found that strength had arrived. There, there was water and in those first few weeks Katale seemed to grow by 50,000 weekly.

In the first few weeks I drove at a daily crawl along Kibumba's crowded road to reach the site of our new camp at Kayindo. Kibumba camp lay on the east side of the road. The west side of the road was where the bodies were brought in their thousands. In the early days that side of the road was lined with bodies, sometimes in piles, sometimes in clusters that looked like family groupings. In a perverse way I felt as if those little family groupings were my salvation because I would drive by all the horrible sights and smells until I passed a family that could have been my own, and then the tears would come to ease the pressures a little.

In refugee work, one death per 10,000 people per day is considered high. In these camps when we arrived, t he death rate was about 45 per 10,000 per day. With diarrhoeal diseases, people can dehydrate and die in very short time, especially children. The press gave a lot of coverage to the cholera epidemic, but that accounted for only about a third of the fatalities. All other forms of diarrhoea represented a much larger problem.

In addition to dehydration many people simply "switched off" as if they decided they had had enough trauma and misery.

The number of orphans and lost children was nothing short of staggering. Infants below a certain age most often did not survive. We heard of a mother in one of the hospitals who looked across at an orphanage and miraculously spotted the baby she had lost some days before in all the confusion. We heard of another infant who was discovered still clinging to a mother two days dead. In one of the early days one of our engineers tried to pull a boy out of the lake, and found the child was trying to kill himself.

Three or four weeks later the death rates were much lower in the camps, with relatively few bodies on the side of the road. That was when the worst of the horror started. Instead of thousands of deaths resulting from exposure and disease and "natural stresses", I would drive down a beautiful seemingly calm piece of road and come across a fight and murder in progress. Beatings and killings seemed all too common among people who had lost much of their moral and ethical framework.

Unlike the tears of the earlier scenes, we could not stop or acknowledge that any of these later events had affected us at all. Road accidents were common, and the rules that were universally applied by us, as by most agencies and all local drivers, stated that we must not stop. I was fortunate not to be involved in any such accidents. It hurt, though, to walk or drive away from all the old people or mothers with infants asking for help. To get water to the hundreds of thousands and to save many more lives we simply could not stop for individual cases.

Safe drinking water is the key to breaking the cycle of weakened people unable to fetch water becoming sick and ever weaker. Oxfam had been asked by the UNHCR to coordinate water supply in the camps. In all of the camps where people had already settled, we rushed to build storage and treatment tanks and simple distribution systems.

In Kibumba we eventually provided three large storage and treatment sites, but only the most basic distribution, as we had concluded early on that Kibumba would never be a suitable site location for a permanent camp.

The landscape looked green enough when viewed from a distance, but it actually consisted of frozen waves of lava and cinder. In places this was jagged like the edges of huge broken bubbles. The whole plain was covered by a thick growth of some form of brambles. One of my most uncomfortable moments was during a visit by some Oxfam people from Goma office. One of the women looked at our three quarters finished structures and at the surrounding terrain, drew herself up, and said "who chose this site? Who decided that people could live in this environment?" I felt a certain sense of ownership and confessed that I had probably been the one most responsible for the decision to build there because there simply was no other site available.

I felt somewhat vindicated a week or so later when the first few thousand refugees began to arrive. Led in groups to their prospective home sites, within hours they had not only levelled their sites, but had the construction of their huts well along, using the saved brambles.

We had treated water flowing in the tap stands when the refugees arrived. The new arrivals helped to finish construction of the sections of the camp where later arrivals would settle. We were the first camp with the luxury to be able to provide wash stands and privacy booths for bathing.

I walked down through the camp as I left for Goma on my way home, about two weeks after the first refugees arrived from Kibumba. I passed by our tap stands and laundry tubs, some of which we had built at a height suitable for children. There was a group of 8 or 10 kids laughing and playing together as they washed clothes at the tubs. I could not believe that these could be the same people that I had seen almost eight weeks before at Kibumba.

What a blessing to have been allowed that one final glimpse of humanity beginning to heal itself where I might have imagined that healing could never come!

For me the privilege of working with people committed to service, cooperation, mutual respect and support, was really an inspiration. I would love to do more of it if I could bring myself to leave the family that often. I had the greatest respect and affection for the various engineers who came to work with me at Kayindo. They included British, Dutch, and Belgian engineers, but also some very competent Rwandan engineers who were working as labourers in the camps.

Other agencies, The Swedish Disaster Relief team, Medecins Sans Frontiers, and many others demonstrated an inspiring spirit of cooperation and service.

I do hope that other friends will consider the fact that crises in the world are getting more heartrending and more challenging year by year. A new generation of friends may be called to repeat some of the sacrifices of the post war years