A volcanic eruption is the last thing this lush country - wracked by years of misrule and civil war - needed as it renews a push for peace. Nonetheless, today the lakefront town of Goma, in eastern Congo, lies in ruins. A six-foot flow of lava tore through the main street last Thursday, destroying houses, engulfing roads, burying dozens of people alive, and turning approximately 350,000 others into refugees.
And now, as UN agencies launch an emergency appeal for $15 million to purchase food, shelter, and medicines to last up to two weeks, a complication is arising: the question of who will administer the rebuilding effort in a country riven by civil war.
On one side is the rebel Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) rebels, who took over most of eastern Congo and whose fiefdom is centered here in Goma. On the other is the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has not been able to hold a presence here since the beginning of the civil war in 1998. Both sides insist they are solely responsible for the people of Goma and for rebuilding the city. Meanwhile, the government of neighboring Rwanda, which backs the RCD rebels, wants to lead relief efforts.
All of this comes just weeks before the next meeting of the inter-Congolese dialogue, a process aimed at ending Congo's civil war, which has claimed some 2 million lives. At a time when cooperation seems most appropriate, it also seems further away than ever.
"Everyone is trying to make political mileage out of this," says the head of one aid organization, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Each side is trying to bend the ear of the donor community, get their hands on the funds, and raise their own status. There is a major human catastrophe at hand, but the political leaders can't put aside their egotistical interests for even a second."
Compared with man-made disasters, such as wars, natural disasters usually generate greater solidarity and more financial donations, says Paul Stromberg, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). "There is an outpouring of sympathy and money in cases of floods or earthquakes and such.... Natural disasters are simpler to grasp. You don't have to explain who is against whom and why, and there is never a need to take sides."
Or so it would seem. But in Congo, even a natural disaster can become political. Even though aid money does not go directly to the leadership of the disaster area, there are considerable fringe benefits, including prestige and power, which accrue to those cooperating with the international community. In a region where power struggles are intense, the added clout of taking the lead on such a major rehabilitation effort is priceless.
President Joseph Kabila last week declared Goma a disaster area and set up a national crisis committee. "This is being done," he said in a statement, "in partnership with the international community and humanitarian agencies." Mr. Kabila's statement did not mention the RCD, which rules Goma. The president then said he would dispatch a government mission to assess the situation and arrange for the return and resettlement of the refugees - even though the RCD has no intention of allowing such a team into town.
This is a crucial moment for the 32-year-old Kabila to prove his leadership credentials, says Joseph Ayee, head of political science at the University of Ghana. "His ability to play a part in this natural disaster will be used as a yardstick to determine his ability to solve the country's problems in general."
It is also a crucial moment for the rebel RCD, which does not intend to let Kabila gain leverage here, especially after losing their headquarters in the eruption. When asked about working with the government, Sec.-Gen. Azarias Ruberwa frowns. "They are not sincere," he charges. "They want to profit from our misery to show the people that it is they who take care of them. But we run the show here. We are working with the international aid community to take care of the needs of our people." RCD President Adolph Onusumba Yemba adds that if Kabila wants to help, he should donate money to the UN assistance fund "just like every other foreign country is doing."
"It's unfortunate that the rebels are making this into a political issue," says government Information Minister Kikaya Bin Karubi. "Don't we have a cease-fire agreement? Aren't we working toward peace? This is an opportunity for the country to unite."
Meanwhile, the Rwandan government, which backs the rebels, is appealing to the international community to channel aid funds directly through it. "As a government, we have sized up the situation and we have prepared the camps," Rwandan Interior Minister Jean de Dieu Ntiruhungwa said over the weekend. "We have mobilized the international community, and we have been holding meetings with the UN to discuss the problems ahead. We think it would be best for the refugees - for security reasons - to remain here."
For the time being, says one senior UN official, aid efforts will be coordinated with the party in control of Goma - the RCD - even though it is not seen to be representative of the population. Efforts are focused on emergency needs, he explains. "We will need to sort out the politics of all this later."
The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Geneva says agencies are preparing six sites for aid distribution and two for temporary resettlement near Goma.
As the parties play political tug of war, thousands of refugees roam the hilly paths of near Rwanda or make their way back home over the warm, molten rock that carpets their city.
"Who will help us?" asks George Ngoy, a teacher and father of four whose home and workplace were demolished. "Kinshasa has forgotten us long ago, the RCD has nothing to offer, and we would rather starve than go live in Rwanda."
Salvador Muindu, another refugee, adds: "We would be so happy to have peace and quiet here," he says. "We have been suffering for so long. No one has ever cared. Maybe now, when the world is looking at us, someone will notice how very miserable we are."