TOPICS > World

Catastrophe in the Congo

January 22, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: For more on the situation in Goma, we go to Faida Mitifu, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s ambassador to Washington; and on the phone from Goma, David Snyder, emergency response information officer with Catholic Relief Services. He arrived in Goma yesterday to assess the situation.

And David Snyder, when agencies are gearing up to deal with a situation like this, what do you have to do first?

DAVID SNYDER: I mean, basically, the first step in any kind of situation is to figure out what exactly you’re dealing with, I mean, before you can do any kind of cohesive and orchestrative and constructive distribution, you have to figure out, you know, what kind of numbers you’re dealing with, and that’s certainly been the case with this disaster as well. It’s — got to literally get on the ground and figure out how many people are displaced and what they need.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, people are streaming back into Goma from neighboring Rwanda. Are they immediately getting the help they need from agencies like Catholic Relief?

DAVID SNYDER: The issue right now, and, you know, what we’ve all been dealing with and what’s typical in these emergencies is just figuring out, again, you know, what it is they need. We have quite a pipeline set up. We have supplies available in the region– Catholic Relief and other agencies as well. The basic need right now is food. We’re looking at about probably a month’s of emergency distribution to just kind of keep people on their feet and get them… You know, get them settled. And then you’re looking at some longer-term rehabilitation, housing rehabilitation, and small enterprise development; those sorts of efforts.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there also a challenge of having a place to simply live until things calm down? These returning refugees are coming back to a hometown that’s a lot smaller than the one they fled from when the lava was flowing.

DAVID SNYDER: Yeah. You know, that’s absolutely the case, and it also presents kind of a longer-term difficulty and potential problem that you see in these sorts of situations. I mean, you know, I think refugees, when they’re made refugees, they want to go back home and they want to resettle in the same place they left. I mean, home is home for anyone. And in a case like this or in a case like you see in India or various places around the world where you have perpetual flooding that hits the same areas, you know, there could be potential serious problems to go back and rebuild your house in the same place that you have had lava flows in the past. So those will have to be issues that get addressed down the road.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Ambassador, what reports are you getting and what reports are… Is your government getting from the Goma area?

FAIDA MITIFU: We are getting the same reports. People don’t want to be camped in Rwanda. They want to go back to Congo. Congo is a big country, of course, and there are possibility to… possibilities to resettle people, at least temporarily, even in areas around Goma. My government’s response has been… The first thing we did was to create a committee that will be dealing with this crisis, and my government has made available a fund of approximately $1 million to intervene into this crisis. The issue… As you know, Goma is under the occupation of the Rwandan-backed rebel movement, RCD, and we have been negotiating with RCD to let this emergency aid from the government to get to the people in Goma. But we have been also looking into other possibilities, such as working with UN agencies, working through MONIC to get…

RAY SUAREZ: MONIC is…

FAIDA MITIFU: MONIC is the UN representation in…in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. So we’ve been working and trying to see through which agencies we can ship humanitarian assistance to the people of Goma. We have even identified some of the NGO’s who are already there who will be dispatching the humanitarian aid. We have food and we have also pharmaceutical products, about 240 tons of food and pharmaceutical products.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, given the nature of the crisis, because people are in danger, do you know if you’re going to have any trouble getting this across lines of battle to the people who need it, these supplies?

FAIDA MITIFU: Well, we can just count on the humanity of people who are in control of the area. We are dealing with a humongous humanitarian crisis here, and we have to intervene very quickly. Help from the outside has been quite slow, although we must admit it has taken, you know, a little bit of time to get all of the international agencies there. And like Mr. Snyder just said, they were trying first to figure out how they can help, and I’m sure they’re still trying to figure out how they can help. So you have people who have spent so far four or five days without food, without proper drinking water, etc.

RAY SUAREZ: David Snyder, has the fact that Goma is in the middle of a civil war complicated your work… Your agency’s work?

DAVID SNYDER: Right. Well, the ambassador is certainly in a much better position than I to comment on the political situation there in terms of the rebel… That being a rebel area. I mean, from what I’ve seen personally here, I’m here in northwestern Rwanda, which is literally a stone’s throw across the border from Goma, where this is all happening. I mean, may of the supplies, if not all of the supplies that we’ve seen coming up are coming up through Rwanda, and in that sense they haven’t been affected by any of the insecurities that might exist in the Congo, because we’re able to bring them through Rwanda. As I said before, I mentioned that the border is open, it’s very fluid, and us and other aid agencies can take these goods directly across and distribute them basically into Goma itself.

RAY SUAREZ: Lake Kivu is the main water supply for the towns in that area and a lot of the lava went into the lake. Is that complicating matters? Is there enough fresh drinking water around, David Snyder?

DAVID SNYDER: Well, we’ve heard reports over here from a few vulcanologists who have come through that the water itself in the lake… That the lava that actually made it to the lake was fairly minimal in terms of the amount that would be required to cause any sort of dangerous, or unhealthy situation in the lake itself. You know, obviously water is a critical concern when you’re dealing with any population anywhere, and that’s certainly the case here as well. Some agencies that are working here aren’t taking any chances. They’re chlorinating the water that they’re then handing it out to refugees and those who are displaced in the country.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Ambassador, I understand you have family in the area. Are they okay?

FAIDA MITIFU: Yes, I do have family in the area. I have some of them have been able to leave the Goma area and they gone to the southern city, of Kavu (ph), which is the capital city of south Kivu, but I still have family members stranded in the area between two lava. But I’ve kept in touch with them. They are still holding on. It’s not very easy, but they’re just holding on.

RAY SUAREZ: David Snyder, you’ve been to downtown Goma. What does it look like where the lava has come through?

DAVID SNYDER: It’s really an awesome sight. I mean, I’ve never personally been to a volcano before, an active volcano and seen the results. And it really is an amazing sight. We were down there today, went out to the airports and saw where the lava kind of skirted the edge of the airport. And it’s just a swath of rock, basically, steaming, steaming rock. It’s still hot now, even four days after the initial flow. There’s sheet metal… You know, hot sheet metal sticking up out of the lava, you know, out of the rock where houses once stood and the main street… Literally the main streets running straight down the middle of Goma full of seven, eight, even nine sheets of now hardened lava and the businesses on both sides of them are just burned out shells.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Ambassador, we’re looking at a long time of recovery for this town?

FAIDA MITIFU: Oh, absolutely. I think we have to keep in mind that the people of that area, of eastern Congo in general in that area in particular, have been going through a very, very disastrous situation for the past three and a half years, and the feeling is that they have been forgotten by the international community due to the unjust war imposed upon them. And the eruption of this volcano, as bad as it is, one can say that it’s mother nature reminding people of the misery that the people in that area are suffering, are going through.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Mitifu, David Snyder, thanks both.