Mount Nyiragongo erupted Saturday night displacing tens of thousands of people and killing at least 15. The volcano, which hasn’t erupted in almost two decades, destroyed more than 500 homes and sparked fear and turmoil in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Goma, a city with nearly 670,000 people, has residents searching for missing loved ones. Over 170 children are still feared missing and nearly 150 others have been separated from their families. The UN’s children’s agency will be setting up help centers to match unaccompanied minors with their families.
According to Patrick Muyaya, a government spokesman, of the 15 deaths, nine were killed in traffic accidents while fleeing the devastation. Four others died while attempting to escape prison and another two were burned to death. Provincial authorities say it’s too soon to know how many lives have been lost and recovery efforts continued through the weekend. The husband of 68-year old Ernestine Kabuo was among those burnt.
“I said to myself: I can’t go alone, we’ve been married for the best and for the worst,” Kabuo said, recalling her decision to run back towards her burning house as her sick husband lay inside. “I went back to at least try to get him out but couldn’t. I ran away and he got burned inside. I don’t know what to do. I curse this day.”
The lava, which was described as particularly fluid by volcanologist, Professor Mike Burton, stopped in the Buhene district, on the edge of Goma. Nearly 500 houses and large buildings were buried and burnt. Reconstruction efforts are said to take several months.
After Mount Nyiragongo erupted Saturday, more than 5,000 residents fled from Goma to Rwanda. Another 25,000 residents fled northwest into Sake. The destruction, though immense, was not nearly as devastating as the 2002 eruption which killed hundreds and displaced over 100,000 people. Still, Saturday’s eruption marks immense tragedy for those who lost loved ones and homes.
Aline Bichikwebo escaped with her baby after lava reached her village. Her mother and father, however, weren’t as lucky. Bichikwebo tried to rescue her father but wasn’t strong enough to move him before their house ignited in flames.
“I am asking for help because everything we had is gone,” Bichikwebo cried, her baby in hand. “We don’t even have a pot. We are now orphans and we have nothing.”
“People are still panicking and are hungry,” one resident said. “They don’t even know where they are going to spend the night.”
Though many are still recovering from the devastating night, others have begun asking questions about Mount Nyiragongo and why such little warning was given before its eruption. Though the volcano is one of the more active ones in the world, some believe it was not properly observed by the Goma Volcano Observatory. The World Bank, which was funding the Observatory’s safety efforts, cut funding after allegations of corruption.
On May 10, the Goma Volcano Observatory reported that seismic activity at Mount Nyiragongo had risen. The lava lake within the volcano was filling up quickly, Katcho Karume, the observatory’s director said last year. He explained that such activity increased the chances of eruption in the next few years. However, Karume admitted that an earthquake could trigger an eruption earlier.
The eruption on Saturday wasn’t as deadly as two previous eruptions. In 2002, things were dire for hundreds of thousands of individuals. In 1977, the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo lead to more than 600 deaths. Despite its lower level, tragedy did ensue over the weekend, and many are seeking aid.
“We have seen the loss of almost an entire neighborhood,” Bahala Shamavu, a displaced resident said. “All the houses in Buhene neighborhood were burned and that’s why we are asking all the provincial authorities and authorities at the national level as well as all the partners, all the people of good faith in the world, to come to the aid of this population.”