Victims of Congo's volcano face uncertain future, life in tents

Tuesday, February 19, 2002

GOMA, Congo -- Given the choice, Kasavuka Mopepe says he would take a war over a volcanic eruption any day.

"At least war may leave some things intact," said Mopepe, whose house and soap factory were wiped out when Mount Nyiragongo erupted on Jan. 17. "Lava will definitely consume everything standing in its path."

A month after the volcano's lava flows consumed buildings, lives and livelihoods in this rebel-held eastern Congolese city, thousands are still living in tents, schools and churches, unable to begin rebuilding houses because the hardened lava is still hot.

Meanwhile, international aid agencies are contending with a shortage of funds and the rebel bureaucracy as they work to provide assistance for thousands of Goma's estimated 500,000 people.

In Goma, rebuilding shattered lives is nothing new. The city has suffered through the chaotic first years of independence from Belgium in the early 1960s, the brutal and negligent 30-year regime of Mobutu Sese Seko, the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda, a rebellion and a civil war.

Ordered to outskirts

But the aftermath of the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo has brought its own set of challenges and frustrations.

The latest is a decision by the city's rebel leadership ordering the thousands of people living in schools, churches and markets to move to city's outskirts. At the edge of the city they face raids by armed bandits and Rwandan rebels operating in eastern Congo.

The rebels say the decision is aimed at clearing out the schools in time for the beginning of the academic year on Feb. 25.

Aid agency officials have frantically sought to get the order rescinded, pointing out that only 10 percent of schools are occupied by victims of the eruption. Other victims live with neighbors, relatives and friends, the officials say.

Some aid agency officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, also say rebel officials have told them that they want the organizations to assist in the expansion of the city by laying the necessary infrastructure for the resettlement sites outside Goma.

Rebels of the Rwandan-backed Congolese Rally for Democracy have been running Goma since civil war broke out in Congo in August 1998.

The rebels "want to help, but they don't have the structures and they don't have the people," said Claude Jibidar, coordinator for the United Nations World Food Program in eastern Congo.

$3 million in pledges

Humanitarian agencies have already spent between $15-20 million on emergency assistance since Mount Nyiragongo erupted, said Miriam Lutz, an official with the U.S. Agency for International Development in eastern Congo.

The WFP has been feeding about 350,000 people since the eruption and will need at least $9 million to continue providing food through April, Jibidar said. So far the agency has received $3 million in pledges from donors, he said.

The WFP's emergency program in Goma is also faced with having to replenish food stocks borrowed from other WFP programs in neighboring Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, Jibidar said.

Faced with such financial realities, some aid officials said they fear they may have to begin scaling back operations in Goma.

Meanwhile, everyone is keeping close tabs on Mount Nyiragongo.

January's eruption disgorged some 110 million cubic yards of lava, destroying about 20 percent of Goma's residential areas, or about 13 percent of the city.

USAID is supplying seismographs and other monitoring equipment to the center monitoring Mount Nyiragongo, Lutz said. The agency will also pay the salaries of the center's staff for a year, she said.

Meanwhile, the threat of eviction looms for refugees. At Goma's Don Bosco Technical School, more 5,000 people are still living in classrooms or hastily erected tin shacks. They are bitter about the rebel order to move.

"They are kicking us out like dogs, when they have done nothing to help us," said Suwedi Almasi, 42, a father of two who lost his carpentry business and house.

With no business to run, Almasi spends his days guarding the few possessions he managed to save before the lava destroyed his house.

"It is only (aid agencies) that are working to help," he said. Rebel officials, he said, "only make speeches on the radio."

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