Goma, 7 November 2008 - It sounded like a ripple of distant fireworks to me but to the thousands of displaced people gathered at Kibati camp for a WFP food distribution it was something infinitely more menacing and terrifying.
For a moment it stopped, then crackled again. Then the heavy thud of a mortar round hitting home. Within seconds, the calm order of the food distribution collapsed into chaos. People ran in all directions.
A woman fell and was nearly engulfed by the crowd pressing forward around her, then picked herself up. The look on her face screamed frustration, pain and desperation. A few yards away, a young child screamed uncontrollably, his elder brother helpless to calm him. They both appeared lost and alone. Since the distribution was straight off the back of trucks, the drivers soon had them ready to leave. And it didn't take us long to jump into the cars. But even before we'd managed that, the distribution site was all but deserted.
We found them on the road back into Goma – thousands of them, streaming into the city with whatever they could carry. Most had little or nothing at all. They fled as fast they could, a river with a thousand currents, some running at full speed, others old and slow.
A soldier tried to commandeer a speeding motorbike heading in the other direction, but its owner managed to avoid his clumsy lunge. As WFP and other UN and NGO staff gathered at the WFP compound to spend another sleeping on any spare floor space available, colleagues were already talking about tomorrow. Security permitting, we will return to Kibati. Friday was the third of three long days of food distributions around Goma in which we planned to reach over 135,000 people.
We need to finish the job. And then turn our minds to how to reach the many thousands more further north, beyond our reach.
Marcus Prior is WFP's Public Affairs Officer in East and Central Africa.