Congo volcanic flows worsen

Sunday, January 20, 2002

GOMA, Congo -- Bright red lava shot into the air from what appeared to be a new volcanic cone in eastern Congo Saturday, sending a new wave of molten rock into the devastated center of Goma, slicing the city in half, killing at least 40 and forcing hundreds of thousands from their homes.

Residents cutoff from escape surrounded the visiting rebel leader who controls the city Saturday pointing to their stomachs and begging for food.

As seen from a Rwandan Air Force helicopter, a small black cone was forming in what had been banana groves on Congo's border with Rwanda. The new lava sources was spewing to the southwest, covering one third of the runway at Goma's airport, destroying the city's Roman Catholic cathedral and thousands of homes.

A second lava flow also poured from a fissure at the base of the erupting Mount Nyiragongo, six miles west of the new cone and 12 miles north of the city.

There are eight volcanoes in eastern Congo and Rwanda, but only two are active. They have developed several new craters over the years.

300,000 have fled

More than 300,000 people have fled Goma into neighboring Gisenyi, Rwanda, where they have been living on the streets, sheltering at night under shop porches.

An estimated 180,000 more people remained marooned by the lava on the other side of the divided city without potable water or electricity, said Adolphe Onusumba, the leader of the Rwandan-backed Congolese rebel group that controls Goma and who visited the stranded people by helicopter.

"People are beginning to return, but they are complaining of no food, no water. They are hungry," Onusumba said. He said 85 percent of the central business district had been destroyed, including warehouses holding food supplies.

Like two spokes extending from Mount Nyiragongo, lava flows 160 feet wide and up to 10 feet deep in places, plowed through the city. Onusumba said 10,000 homes, or 40 percent of the city, had been destroyed. One of the lava flows created a 330-foot wide delta as it poured into Lake Kivu, producing a huge cloud of sulfuric steam.

Upon landing in the western half of the city, where no outside aid has reached the stranded population, Onusumba tried to reassure the people.

"We are asking the international community to come here and bring aid," Onusumba told the crowd. "We are doing everything we can to help you."

Any aid sent to western Goma would have to be delivered by boat because the lava is too hot to cross, and there are no airfields.

Onusumba said it was too early to know how many people died, but U.N. officials have put the figure at more than 40. Hospital officials in neighboring Gisenyi said they had recorded 16 deaths, including two infants and two old people. Officials said the situation remained chaotic.

"There is no food, no water, no sanitation. We are here like animals," said Richard Mwambo, a teacher who fled Goma and embarked on a dangerously overcrowded ferry for the 12-hour trip south to Bukavu.

"We're afraid of dying. If we are to die, it is better to die in Congo, not Rwanda."

In eastern Goma, Bakandowa Mpenda emptied his house, preparing to move his wife and seven children to Gisenyi. He struggled to load as much of his furniture, books and chickens on a truck as the lava slid slowly his way.

Damascene Ntiruhungwa, the Rwandan interior minister, said U.N. and aid agencies recognized the potential for a cholera outbreak because of a shortage of potable water and were moving quickly to provide assistance to the refugees. Both of Goma's water treatment plants were destroyed by lava, and there was limited water in Gisenyi.

"This is a natural catastrophe, and Rwanda has a moral obligation to help them because they are our neighbors," Ntiruhungwa said. He said the government had set up two camps to receive the displaced.

But he said few of the refugees wanted to go into the camps and many had chosen to return to their homes. He said officials would warn those returning to Goma of the dangers but would not try to stop them.

He said was working on a plan to evacuate Gisenyi if lava from the new crater began flowing toward the town.

As hundreds of Goma residents returned to their city Saturday morning, hundreds more fled carrying their belongings into Gisenyi. Some shops located on high ground were open, selling basic foodstuffs or pharmaceuticals. There were scattered reports of looting.

Distribution of U.N. relief food was expected to begin by late Saturday after a cargo plane arrived in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, with 28 tons of plastic sheeting, blankets, jerry cans and medicines.

Most of the dozens of people suffering from lava burns were transferred from Gisenyi hospital where there are just five doctors to better-equipped facilities in Kigali.

The 11,381-foot Nyiragongo last erupted in January 1977.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: