U.S. Food Drop Misses Mark For Rwanda Refugees -- Pallets Land Off Target, Spill, While Sanitation Crisis Waits

KATALE, Zaire - The first significant effort by U.S. military forces to help alleviate the suffering of 1 million Rwandan refugees here literally hit the ground yesterday with an embarrassing thud.

Everything that could possibly go wrong did go wrong, in what aid workers called a grandstanding show that did little to help refugees dying by the thousands from cholera and dysentery.

Three military C-130 cargo planes were supposed to drop 20 tons of food for a group of 350,000 refugees camped in the foothills of the volcanic mountains here.

In itself, that would have been a drop in the bucket. But much of the aid never left the planes, and what did fell far off the mark.

The target camp already had 520 tons of emergency food that was being distributed yesterday. And U.S. military expertise, as relief workers here diplomatically pointed out, could have been better deployed to address the most urgent needs, such as safe drinking water and sanitation facilities. That both have been in short supply is the reason a cholera epidemic continued to leave hundreds of bodies littering the countryside.

Nevertheless, said a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, "every little bit helps." Another relief worker snickered that this looked too much like a publicity stunt "to impress the little old lady from Dubuque."

But limited in its practical usefulness as it was to start with, the airdrop ended in a near-fiasco. The planes missed their target - a grassy runway at a local coffee plantation - by at least half a mile. Instead, the aid crashed into nearby fields, one pallet narrowly missing a helicopter parked with its blades whirring. Another fell near a cluster of mud huts, causing an old woman to flee into nearby banana trees. And yet another 1-ton package fell near a school.

"Somebody could have got killed!" shrieked Britt Schumann, a field officer for the U.N. refugee agency.

But for the U.S. military operation announced Friday by President Clinton - he authorized more than $100 million for airlifts of medicine, food and water - those were not the only markers of this inauspicious beginning.

Parachutes failed to open

Some parachutes failed to open. A few pallets broke on impact, spilling wheat flour onto the muddy terrain. Locals made off with some of the provisions, which included yeast and even Gruyere cheese.

In addition, six trucks (where one would have been sufficient) were commandeered to collect the air-dropped food. As a result, urgently needed water-purification equipment flown in by the relief agency Oxfam could not be transported to the camp here. And minuscule as the 20 tons of food planned for the airdrop was, only a third of it actually made it out of the planes. The army cited visibility problems.

"This is not an easy situation," said Army Maj. Guy Shields, the U.S. military spokesman. He arrived here Saturday with the first 21 of a 4,000-strong U.S. contingent to be deployed here and in neighboring Uganda.

Shields pleaded for patience. "Believe it or not, we are just an assessment team," he said of the handful of troops who have landed here so far.

So far, the only other visible sign of an official U.S. presence here is a forklift that was flown in yesterday to Goma airport.

In the meantime, relief workers grappled with the condition of the refugees, who fled a war in their country next door. A few thousand Rwandans actually returned home yesterday. Zaire opened its border, and a trickle of Hutus, appalled by conditions here and reassured by the new, largely Tutsi government that there would be no retribution, stolidly marched back toward their homes. It was not expected to presage a major migration soon.

CARE distributing food

At the Katale camp here, the first truckloads of maize and enriched biscuits were being distributed by CARE International. A few miles to the south, in another camp for hundreds of thousands more refugees, the International Committee of the Red Cross distributed food to the hungry, through clan leaders responsible for refugees from their specific regions in Rwanda.

In the hardest-hit camps, such as in Munigi and Kibumba, the misery continued to climb. Deaths from cholera epidemic passed the 7,000 mark Saturday, and by yesterday, U.N. officials said their best estimate was that daily death tolls were upwards of 1,300 people. Officials had repeatedly appealed for urgent assistance in providing potable water and equipment for digging 6,000 latrines to slow the spread of disease.

All of that caused some relief workers to roll their eyes upon learning yesterday that the first thing the U.S. military planned to do was conduct a miniature version of the 1991 airdrop of food for Iraqi Kurds, as well as a similar operation last year in aid of Bosnians.

"I don't know what the American rationale is," Ray Wilkinson of the U.N. refugee group said earlier yesterday. "They may have very good reasons, but I don't know them."