Suddenly, lava paves the streets
As tremors continue, scientists say the volcano in the Congo may erupt again.
GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — Laurence Kangeshenge fled in her four-inch heels - the fake Guccis she bought last week at the second-hand market here. Now a refugee in Rwanda, she stumbles uphill over the uneven ground with a jerry can of water strapped to her back, cursing her footwear, the volcano, and the Congo all in one breath. "We are born into war. We live through war. We fear war. And then we get a volcano," she says, wiping away a tear.
Once a popular playground for white settlers in Africa, and described in the 1950s as a "heaven on Earth," Goma has in the past decade become almost synonymous with misery.
The 11,400-foot Mt. Nyiragongo - one of Africa's deadliest volcanoes - erupted Thursday, spewing orange lava onto this lakefront town. Swathes of magma up to 165 feet wide oozed down streets, burning everything in their wake and finally pouring into Lake Kivu, contaminating the water with poisonous ash. A blanket of hot air and sulphurous steam hung over the smoldering ruins of the city.
Now, cooling lava is leaving walls of black stone, in some places five feet high, which crisscrosses the town, cutting off one section from another.
The volcano, which wrecked about 40 percent of the town and sent an estimated 350,000 people fleeing across the border into Rwanda, is the latest in a long line of disasters to befall this lush region.
The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that 200,000 of those are children under 15 - half of them under 5 years old.
About 40 people are believed to have died in Thursday's eruption, and another dozen from inhalation of the fumes, but reports are unconfirmed.
Yesterday, lava flows ignited a gas station, killing between 30 and 50 people who were trying to siphon gas from elevated tanks, according to witness reports. More than a dozen 50-gallon barrels in the gas station store room exploded continually for hours, sending 100-foot flames into the air, as a black plume of smoke hung over Goma for hours.
"In humanitarian terms, people from Goma have endured perhaps the worst series of crises imaginable," says Paul Stromberg, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). "And now, they are faced with this incredible natural disaster. It's too much."
He could not say if and how long it might take for the city to be rebuilt and for people to be able to reclaim their former lives.
People from this region are accustomed to hardship. In 1994, more than 1 million Rwandan Hutu refugees, escaping retribution from the Tutsi-led government, fled to Goma, putting an enormous strain on the city.
Two years later, most had returned to Rwanda.
Then, civil wars erupted in late 1996 and 1998, bringing the unpopular Rwandan-backed rebels - the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) - into town. They set up headquarters in Goma, but were accused of allowing the population to go hungry, human rights abuses, and exploiting natural resources.
And now, the people of Goma - pots, pans, and clothing bundles on their heads - are on the move. Throughout the weekend, the displaced made their way into neighboring Rwanda, on motorcycle, on bicycles, crammed into cars or trucks or boats, and mostly by foot. Some headed to the high mountains, wanting to escape the lava they believed would soon pursue them.
Others walked along the highways, making their way to the three refugee camps set up by the UN in Rwanda, 18 miles away. And others still wandered around in circles, looking desperately for family or friends lost in the chaos.
The majority of the refugees were subsisting on a combination of bananas, corn, and protein biscuits handed out on the roadsides by the World Food Program (WFP).
With no fresh water available, they headed to Lake Kivu and, in sight of a 50 foot cloud of volcanic steam coming out of the lake, plunged in to wash and drink.
Lacking shelter, they dropped down at nightfall here and there, falling on the dusty curbs, camping in gas stations, huddling on the grass, or crawling under parked trucks.
"We do have a lot of experience in this region," says Lara Mello, a spokeswoman for WFP. "We have facilities and some infrastructure - cars, telecommunications, portable warehouses, and food reserves and the like - but we can't say that just because we are better prepared it makes it any easier for anyone."
She estimates the refugees need 150 tons of food a day delivered to them to prevent them from starving.
Yesterday, against the advice of UN aid workers, tens of thousands of refugees decided to leave the camps to return home. Under a light drizzle, people walked carefully over warm molten rock, holding hankerchiefs to their noses to avoid the fumes, in search of any recognizable signs of their former lives.
What they found could not have cheered them. Looters fashioning hooks out of broken pieces of metal were "fishing" through broken store windows - then running away as passing bands of police took pot shots at them with AK47s.
The airport and lake port have both been ruined. Roads are in disrepair. Fires are igniting all over town. Stores are burnt down. There is neither electricity nor water.
"Goma is finished. We have nothing here and no way, no money, no support, and no chance of rebuilding," says Solomon Mwanawebene, looking out a car embedded in a wall of lava. "The only reason we have come back is that it is better to die at home than die a refugee."
Nyiragongo last eruped in 1977, when an underground sea of lava drained from the crater within half an hour, spewing lava onto the towns below and killing hundreds if not thousands of people.
The eighth in a chain of volcanoes stretching eastward into Rwanda, Nyiragongo may yet erupt again, aid workers warn, adding that returning to Goma so early is a mistake.
Health workers warn of a possible cholera outbreak (the last outbreak here, in 1994, killed more than 15,000 people). UN volcanologists are flying over the volcano, trying to determine the likelihood of further eruptions. Scientists are warning of more fires, more craters opening up, and more eruptions.
Meanwhile, tremors continue to shake the ground. Their number and frequency, says volcano expert Dieudonne Wafula, suggest that the volcano has yet to settle down.
While the volcano has gotten rid of the lava, the tectonic plates of the Rift Valley are moving as they adjust and regain their stability, says Wafula, who has been studying the Nyiragongo for 15 years.
"Believe it or not, it may not be over," he said.
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