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Israeli Aid in Rwanda Closes, but JDC Still Treats Refugees

The Israeli field hospital set up at the Rwanda-Zaire border to administer emergency medical services to Rwandan refugees returned home this week after six weeks of harrowing work.

During their stay, three teams of 90 medical and technical volunteers from the Israel Defense Force treated tens of thousands of ailing Rwandans, most suffering from cholera and dehydration, and performed over 100 operations.

IDF Medical Corps officers put the cost of the mercy operation, which was meant to be a short-term stay, at about $7 million. It is hoped that the Finance Ministry will help to defray the costs incurred by the IDF for the mission.

A French hospital is to remain in the area for some time longer to treat remaining Rwandan refugees still in need of medical aid.

In addition, a medical team sent by the American Jewish Joint Distribtion Committee remains on the scene and has been left some of the IDF equipment for its 200-bed hospital at the Kibumba refugee camp near the Rwanda-Zaire border, which it operates with the International Rescue Committee, according to Gideon Taylor, director of special projects for JDC.

It is the second medical team sent by the JDC to aid the Rwandan refugees since they began pouring over the border several months ago.

On Thursday, the JDC was among a number of relief organizations that received a certificate of Special Congressional Recognition for aiding Rwandan refugees. The ceremony took place at New York’s City Hall.

FROM HUT TO HUT TO TREAT THE DYING

The JDC is working with a coalition of 26 Jewish organizations and has also formed a partnership with the African American Institute, a multi-ethnic agency that has worked in Africa for 40 years, to aid the Rwandan refugees.

The coalition has raised $590,000 in over 6,000 individual donations, Taylor said.

JDC President Milton Wolf said, “The medical teams represent a major Jewish response in the relief effort to help the Rwandan refugees.”

The JDC mobilized to help the Rwandans as soon as refugees from the brutal internecine fighting began pouring over the border with Zaire, creating one of the largest refugee camps ever. The refugees were suffering from cholera and a virulent form of dysentery called shigella which can kill and often does. The cholera is now in check, but the shigella continues to plague the population, Taylor said.

Since stationary medical facilities could not help Rwandan refugees who were dying in huts or on the road, JDC medical teams went “from hut to hut treating the dying where they were, hundreds of thousands of them,” said Taylor.

A JDC team of two American doctors, a nurse and two paramedics remains operating at the Kibumba refugee camp, which is in the area of Goma, Zaire, near the border with Rwanda. Taylor estimated that about 300,000 refugees remain at the camp.

The health workers, who volunteered their time for one month, are operating a hospital with 200 beds, seeing a few hundred people a day, Taylor said.

The medical team has also trained Rwandans as community health workers to go from shelter to shelter in isolated outposts of the refugee camp, looking for ailing persons and particularly caring for orphaned babies, he said.

He said this model was developed by the JDC in Ethiopia when the JDC was helping Ethiopian Jews who had come en masse to Addis Ababa to leave for Israel.

Taylor said the JDC treatment model was praised recently at a State Department hearing by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, which recommended it “as a model for dealing with the enormous health problems of the Rwandan refugees.”

(JTA staff writer Susan Birnbaum contributed to this report.)

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