DR Congo volcano forces thousands to evacuate city of Goma

People in the Democratic Republic of Congo city of Goma have been urged by the government to evacuate after the volcano Mount Nyiragongo erupted for the first time in nearly two decades.

As thousands of residents fled the city on foot under a fiery red sky on Saturday night, many towards the Rwandan border, lava covered a major highway between the provincial capital of two million and neighbouring Beni.

Lava was also said to be approaching the city’s international airport, where runways were coated and planes trapped during the volcano’s last eruption in 2002 – a disaster that killed 250 people and left 120,000 homeless.

As president Felix Tshisekedi made to rush home from a European trip and prime minister Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde convened an emergency meeting in the capital, Kinshasa, where the government activated an evacuation plan, reports on Sunday morning suggested the lava flow had slowed just north of Goma after an uncertain night.

Goma-based volcanologist Professor Dario Tedesco had warned that, after the lava initially flowing east towards Rwanda, new fractures were opening up in the volcano, letting lava move south towards the lakeside city, telling Reuters: “Now Goma is the target. It’s similar to 2002. I think that the lava is going towards the city centre.”

“It might stop before or go on. It’s difficult to forecast,” Prof Tedesco had said.

Emmanuel De Merode, the head of nearby Virunga National Park – home to the volcano, and around one third of the world’s wild mountain gorillas – had reportedly asked park employees in parts of Goma to evacuate and said that lava had reached the airport.

Amid the uncertainty, reports painted a chaotic picture, as many in the northern outskirts of the city fled inwards towards its centre and to Mount Goma, its highest metropolitan point, or to seek refuge aboard boats on nearby Lake Kivu, while others mounted an exodus from the city.

Car horns blared and motorcycle taxis weaved as people attempted to escape, causing traffic jams that remained on Sunday morning, described as “without precedent” by regional politician Promesse Matofali Yonama.

After reports of vast power outages and small earthquakes during the night, communications minister Patrick Muyaya said on Sunday morning that, according to local authorities, the lava flow had “lost intensity”. Local media reported that several surrounding villages in the north were affected, with images and footage showing buildings burning.

The Rwandan Broadcasting Agency reported that between 5,000 and 7,000 people had officially crossed the border to escape the eruption, but that many were starting to return on Sunday morning.

“We are panicked because we have just seen the entire city covered by a light that is not electricity or lamps,” one resident, John Kilosho, told Reuters on Saturday night. “We don’t know what to do. We don’t even know how to behave. There is no information.”

The official evacuation announcement came several hours after the sky turned red, and many already had fled on foot. Speaking to the Associated Press, resident Dorcas Mbulayi was among those who blamed authorities “for not informing us in time about the possible volcanic eruption”.

Despite publishing a report on 10 May warning that seismic activity at Mt Nyirangongo had increased, authorities at the Goma Volcano Observatory initially said it was the nearby Nyamulagira volcano – which sits some eight miles from Mt Nyiragongo – that had erupted.

Volcanologist Charles Balagizi said the observatory’s report was based on fact that the lava initially appeared to be flowing towards Rwanda rather than Goma.

While Nyiragongo is one of Africa’s most dangerous volcanoes, a recent decision by the World Bank to cut funding to the Goma Volcano Observatory amid allegations of embezzlement has reportedly hindered its ability to carry out basic checks.

Goma is regional hub for many humanitarian agencies in the region, where much of the surrounding eastern Congo is also under threat from a myriad of armed groups vying for control of the region’s mineral resources.

Additional reporting by agencies


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