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Goma and Gisenyi: Playgrounds of the Rich Become Cities of Death

August 9, 1994

GOMA, Zaire (AP) _ Before Rwanda’s tragedy swept over them, Goma and its neighbor Gisenyi were lakeside playgrounds for the rich in Central Africa. Now they are twin towns of death.

Gisenyi, Rwanda, is a ghost town, inhabited only by the teen-age Tutsi soldiers of the Rwandan Patriotic Front and the thin, silent lines of refugees walking slowly through on their long march home.

The town’s Tutsi inhabitants have mostly been massacred. The Hutus have fled over the border, many to die in Goma’s sickness-ridden camps.

The patrician villas overlooking Gisenyi’s sweeping Lake Kivu waterfront stand abandoned. The plush Hotel Meridian is a wrecked shell.

Walk up the narrow road to the frontier, and you pass the litter of a nation in flight. Hundreds of thousands of Hutus fled along here in panic as rebel troops advanced to conquer the country and halt the slaughter of Tutsis.

In their rush to get away, the refugees abandoned piles of personal belongings, that now lie molding by the border post. Filthy scraps of clothing, a few dusty family snapshots, a battered straw basket.

Those who escaped to Goma are still suffering and dying from the cholera, dysentery and other diseases that have killed some 25,000 since the mid-July exodus.

They died under the palm trees that line Goma’s lakeside ″corniche,″ along the scenic road that runs beneath the volcanoes of Virunga National Park, and on the broad avenue in front of the Hotel des Grands Lacs (The Great Lakes Hotel).

Before things fell apart across the border, people came to vacation in Goma.

Germans, Italians, Americans used it as a base for safaris into the hills to see the mountain gorillas of Zaire and Rwanda. Just 60 miles north is the Rutshuru game reserve, where lions and elephants roam.

Even now, in the carefully manicured gardens of the Hotel Caribu, it is hard to image you are a few minutes drive away from what may be one of the worst places on earth to live and die.

At the Caribu, whose name means ″Welcome″ in Swahili, the clear lake waters lap against rocks overhung with lush trees. Butterflies the size of your hand flutter by in flashes of color, and tropical birds sing sweetly in bushes dotted with flowers of red and orange and pink.

But there are no more tourists. Instead, there are aid workers and journalists. A Dutch army medical team camps on the edge of the garden.

Just up the road is Mugunga Camp, home to more than 100,000 lost souls suffering the dust and disease of Goma’s humanitarian nightmare.

Some are innocents who fled in fear from Rwanda’s carnage. Mixed with them are some of the killers who slaughtered up to 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the murder spree that started in April and sparked the renewed civil war.

″It used to be a marvelous region here,″ says Raouf Chennoufi, a Tunisian who, together with his Belgian wife Mitzi, runs the Nyira restaurant in downtown Goma. ″Now they have devastated the town.″

For the moment, the Nyira is packed, as relief workers and the world’s media flock each evening to its secluded terrace.

Before the crisis, Chennoufi said he sold an average 60 meals a day. Now he has around 300 people crowding the restaurant to sample a menu that on Sunday included avocado stuffed with shrimp, chicken liver pate, coq-au-vin and chocolate mousse.

But he knows the boom will be temporary.

″It’s just going to last a couple of months, and then what?″ asked Chennoufi, who has lived here 13 years and is a former president of the Goma- Gisenyi Rotary Club.

″But who will want to come here after this? People call it city of the dead, city of cholera.″

The refugee invasion has unbalanced Goma’s economy. Goods no longer come in from Rwanda. And the area around Kibumba, once the breadbasket for the town, is now being picked clean to feed the hundreds of thousands of refugees living there.

Prices have soared. A bottle of the local Primus beer can cost $3, five times the price before the influx of aid workers and journalists.

Across the border in Gisenyi, there is nothing to buy and nobody to buy it.

In the Boutique of African Art Objects outside the Meridian, wooden masks and a lion skin lie scattered on the floor. On the lawn of the hotel, fruit from a laden mango tree lays rotting. The boats once used for taking tourists water-skiing on Lake Kivu are beached.

″It must have been a beautiful place,″ says Master Corp. Jim McNeil of the Canadian army. He is one of a small U.N. detachment camping out in the Meridian. ″Now it’s a shambles. It’s shot up, a mess.″

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