ALTHOUGH most of the 1 million refugees in Goma, Zaire, still fear going home, conditions in the Goma area camps are improving.
Early last week, relief officials were almost in despair at the death rate due to cholera and the lack of trucks to transport food and clean water to the camps.
But with the arrival of more trucks and expansion of the water purification effort, refugees are getting more clean water and food, says Ayo Fowler, chief of the United Nations Rwanda Emergency Office in Goma. As a result, there are clear indications that the cholera epidemic has peaked, say Mr. Fowler and officials with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
But relief officials warn of a new threat: An outbreak of dysentery could prove to be as deadly as cholera, they say.
Meanwhile, the first United States troops arrived in Rwanda's capital Kigali over the weekend. They have repaired the war-battered airport for immediate use and aim to restore Rwanda's good road networks to deliver food to refugees in Goma, people returning home, and those currently homeless inside Rwanda.
US military officials say, however, that they do not intend to repeat their Somalia experience. They plan to leave after humanitarian efforts are under way and will not attempt peace efforts to solve the country's political problems. Most UN, US, and other analysts say Rwanda's ethnic and political problems are deep and long-term.
``This is not a slippery slope,'' US Deputy Defense Secretary John Deutch announced on Friday in Washington. ``There is no intention whatsoever of making this a peacekeeping mission.''
In Goma, the US military last week began operating a water purification plant. Clean water is considered a major defense against cholera. But a shortage of trucks to haul water to the camps forced a temporary cutback in the plant's production.
IN the past few days, however, with the arrival of more water tankers, more purified water has been reaching refugees. Another nine tankers arrived in Goma on Monday from UNICEF; 10 more are expected soon from Germany.
A logjam on food deliveries is also easing. An aircraft fuel shortage in Kenya last week threatened to curtail food airlifts from here. And the airport at Goma became congested as food airlifts competed for landing and unloading time with planes carrying water, medicine, and other relief items.
But officials here with the UN's World Food Programme say they are now sending most food to Goma by truck to avoid the fuel crunch and cut costs while still getting larger quantities of food to the camps.
``A week ago we were talking about people being very weak, not having enough access to the right kind of food,'' Fowler says. Now, ``food distribution is improving tremendously ... so people are better able to resist the cholera bug.''
The increased supply of food and clean water has resulted in a decline in the death rate among those contracting cholera, he adds. ``The curve is on the downward slope,'' though the decline is only gradual, Fowler told the Monitor in a phone interview on Monday from Goma.
``There is no reason for complacency,'' he cautions. Relief officials are ``working flat out'' to increase the number of people getting clean water.
But improving conditions in Goma is only part of the answer, says Dr. Susan Hahn, East Africa regional director for Catholic Relief Services, a US-based charity.
``A lot of attention has been on the hellish conditions in Goma, but for me, its the long-term thing that is the most depressing,'' she says. Ethnic tensions ``are still as raw and bloody as ever'' among Rwandans.
The minority Tutsi-led rebels are setting up a government in Kigali and asking the mostly Hutu refugees to go home to Rwanda. But so far only about 60,000 have returned.
The rest apparently still fear retribution by the rebels for the deaths of several hundred thousand Tutsis by Hutus since fighting began in April, or reprisals by Hutu officials in the camps if they try to leave.
Relief officials are setting up a cholera screening station near the Rwanda border. Sixteen returnees to Kigali are suspected to have cholera and have been hospitalized, says Col. Moeen Ahmed, chief of operations of UN forces in Kigali.