CHARLES KAMBALE stands amidst smoking, sulphurous rubble, half-heartedly picking scraps of metal off the ground. “This is my home,” he says, quietly. Molten lava began spilling out of fractures in the side of Mount Nyiragongo, a volcano that looms over the city of Goma in eastern Congo, at around 6pm on May 22nd. Mr Kambale was at a wedding with his wife when the eruptions began. His two youngest children, aged six and two, were at home with his neighbours. He has not seen them since. “I plan to make an announcement on the radio to try and find them,” he says.
So far, few deaths have been confirmed as a result of the eruption—photos of bodies are circulating on WhatsApp and one official said 15 had died. Many are still missing. Hundreds have lost their homes. Thousands have fled Goma, a ramshackle metropolis on the edge of Lake Kivu. Throughout the night families lugging mattresses and kitchen pots streamed towards the nearby border with Rwanda, as the smoky skies around the volcano glowed orange.
It was an all too familiar sight. Clashing rebel groups have terrorised eastern Congo for over 25 years. Around 5m Congolese have had to flee their homes for one reason or another. For some who fled this week, it was not the first time. Many of Goma’s residents have escaped from nearby villages that are preyed on by men with guns. Many are used to grabbing a handful of possessions and rushing out into the night. Milling around in the gridlocked traffic, most seemed weary but calm.
It was not the first eruption to hit Goma, nor anything like the worst. In 2002 lava engulfed swathes of the city. Hundreds of people were killed and more than 120,000 were left homeless. Since the latest eruption burst out of the same fissure, or one close to it, people feared the worst. Some aid agencies working in the region packed their staff into speed-boats and shipped them to Bukavu, a city across the lake. Others told staff to stay put, to avoid the robbers who were attacking fleeing cars. Your correspondent, huddled in lakeside house with friends, tentatively hauled a paddleboard out of a storage room, in case she needed to float to Rwanda.
“Nyiragongo is the most dangerous volcano in Africa,” says Adalbert Muhindo, a volcanologist. “It is very close to people and its lava is one of the fastest flowing in the world.” Mr Muhindo is worried by the seismic shocks that have rattled Goma’s rickety buildings all day long. They are getting worse, he says, and they could portend another eruption. Volcanoes are always unpredictable but monitoring one in an area filled with rebels is especially hard. Equipment close to the crater often gets stolen or vandalised.
The lava has melted pipes that supply water to the northern part of the city. Most electricity has been switched off. For Goma’s 2m people, who did not enjoy reliable power or water in the first place, life just got even harder. Leaving Goma by air will be tricky because most planes were flown out as the lava streamed towards the airport, eventually stopping around 1km away.
Two busy districts in the north of the city have melted into heaps of steaming black rocks. With no camps prepared for them, those who have lost their homes will have to be absorbed into other neighbourhoods. In a country where most people survive on less than $2 a day, host families will struggle to look after their new guests. “We hope that the government will help us out with a little something,” says Mr Kambale, standing over scorched pots in what used to be his kitchen. On past form, however, it won’t. Congo’s government sits about 1,500km away in the capital, Kinshasa, and has a long record of neglecting the east. Meanwhile, the people of Goma are praying that Mount Nyiragongo’s fury is spent, at least for now.
Photos: Olivia Acland
This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.