Food shipment prompts crush of famished children

MUGUNGA, Zaire (AP) — The tent’s dusty canvas walls quake in the crush of thousands of hungry children wailing, “Biscuit! Biscuit!”
Taller boys press their faces to the mosquito-netting windows to plead for food. The more daring yank tent stakes out of the volcanic rock that coats everything and everyone in sooty ash, and reach inside for fallen crumbs.
Men swing slender switches in whooshing arcs, trying to keep desperate parents back at Tuesday’s emergency distribution of high-protein biscuits. The aid workers knew going in they had nowhere near enough to feed all the children, and they were keenly aware of ravenous stares as they carried the biscuits through the camp on their heads.
“We were so scared,” says Dr. Antoinette Tshefu Kitoto, a Zairian physician in charge of this tent.
“The people are hungry,” says aid worker Benoit Kambale, uneasily watching the tent tremble.
The people are more than that. They are famished. Exhausted. Scared. And potentially violent.
They are Rwandan Hutus, almost 200,000 strong, who walked two days with no food and few belongings to flee an attack on their old camp, Kibumba, which the Zairian government says was staged by the Tutsi-led Rwandan army.
Mugunga camp, 10 miles west of Goma, is now the world’s largest refugee camp, with a population topping 400,000.
It is merely the latest stopping point on an agonized odyssey that has stretched across two nations and more than two years. No one can say where it will shift next, or how and when it will end.
Everyone knows where it began: in Rwanda, in April 1994, when Hutu extremists slaughtered at least 500,000 of their countrymen, mostly minority Tutsis, in a frenzy of bloodletting.
Tutsi rebels defeated the Hutu-led army, driving it and more than 1 million Rwandan Hutus into exile in neighboring Zaire, where they have remained, fearing retaliation for genocide.
This latest round of violence and cross-border attacks, according to Zaire officials, is led by the Tutsis and aims to drive Hutu refugees and rebels alike farther from the Rwanda border.
In the tent at Mugunga, the doctor is ready with her emergency biscuits. She marshals her forces — six men wielding sticks — and unzips the tent flap. She herself is armed only with a radio with which she can summon soldiers from elsewhere in the camp if trouble threatens.
The Zairian army contingent that normally patrols the camp’s food distributions is far off at the frontline, warily watching the Rwandan soldiers and Zairian Tutsi sympathizers massed along an 18-mile stretch of the border with Rwanda.
“There’s a lot for them to do — they can’t be everywhere at once,” Kitoto says.
When the tent flap is raised, first in line is 9-year-old Kwagirayezu, who has lost a leg to cancer. He hobbles in on hand-hewn crutches and smiles broadly when awarded his eight biscuits.
Swiftly, like Halloween treat-or-treaters, the children collect their booty from aid workers. One boy immediately snaps a corner off a sweet biscuit and pops it in his mouth. An 8-year-old girl with a newborn brother swaddled on her back slips her treasured biscuits into a pocket. A scrawny toddler, his hands too small to clutch all his biscuits, wraps them in his T-shirt.
Omnis Omnibus, a Zairian charity and one of three distributors at the camp Tuesday, has just 5,200 biscuits on hand; 650 children will get eight each. That’s 500 calories — a third of the minimum daily calorie requirement that the U.N. World Food Program estimates a refugee needs to survive.
The biscuits are intended only for kids 5 years old and younger, but the workers find it impossible to turn away older youngsters in the frantic swarm of hungry refugees.
Throughout the region, refugee children rarely get enough to eat. The sight of any foreigner brings cries of “Give me a biscuit,” often the only phrase they know in French.
“The children are tired, but they’re more or less in stable condition,” Kitoto says. “They’ve been hungry for a week, though, and if they’re not well fed they’ll start getting sick.”
The World Food Program planned a full distribution to the newcomers Wednesday of a week’s worth of food — maize, beans, cooking oil and a sugary milk drink high in protein.