Giant wave of lava leaves death and chaos in its wake

Declan Walsh
Saturday 19 January 2002 01:00

The city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo has seen disease and starvation and been home to rapacious rebels and the dictator Mobutu. Its people must have thought there wasn't much they hadn't seen.

Mount Nyiragongo, 30 miles to the north, exploded with biblical fury, spewing a tide of fiery lava that consumed at least 14 villages before reaching Goma. Dozens died as the stream of molten rock 50 metres (160ft) wide crawled down the main street, engulfed the Catholic cathedral and spilt over the airport runway. It then ran into Lake Kivu, which straddles the border with Rwanda.

At least 200,000 terrified people fled for the border, while another 80,000 headed west to the town of Sake. Behind them, fuel depots and powers stations exploded, and the ground shook with tremors.

They fled clutching chickens, children, pots and mattresses. Some wondered if the Gods would ever smile on Goma.

"As a human being I feel like I must cry," said Adolphe Onusumba, the leader of the RCD rebels that control the town. "But to cry is not the solution." UN officials said 45 people had died but the toll was expected to rise.

The Red Cross said that 80 per cent of the town had been damaged, while Eloi Mboso Kiamfu, a fleeing businessman whose home and office were destroyed, said: "Goma almost does not exist any more."

Across the border in Rwanda, aid agencies and local authorities scrambled to provide food, water and shelter for the hundreds of thousands of refugees in the once quiet town of Gisenyi. Most had spent Thursday night sleeping on the side of the road.

Rosamund Carr, an American who runs an orphanage in Gisenyi, said: "It seemed as if the whole town of Goma left on foot. At least 50 people slept outside my gate."

The most immediate danger was a cholera epidemic, said Bernard Le Flaive of the British medical agency Merlin. "People are going in every direction. It is a very confused situation," he said.

Merlin is trying to retrieve stocks of drugs from its Goma warehouse but fears they may have been stolen. During the morning, looters took advantage of the chaos to make off with electronic goods. Some were shot dead by Rwandan soldiers, according to reports.

European Union relief experts were assessing what emergency aid will be needed and the Belgian government immediately committed aid worth €1.25m (£770m). The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, started preparing camps to accommodate those displaced.

The UN evacuated 350 troops from a camp near the airport. The Moroccan soldiers are part of a 5,500-strong contingent overseeing a ceasefire in the four-year war between government and rebels.

Scientists warned that the worst might not be over. The lava river pouring into Lake Kivu could disturb a mass of toxic gas sitting on the bed of the lake, they said. In a worst case scenario, a cloud of gas would rise from the lake and suffocate those on its shores.

The same phenomenon occurred in Cameroon several years ago when almost 2,000 villagers died.

The Red Cross warned that the lava pouring into the lake was also polluting the water supply and that two of Goma's three water purification plants were no longer operational.

A Red Cross spokesman, Florian Westphal, said: "We are discussing how to best assess the situation. Is it even safe to stay in the region?"

Christian Aid staff in the area also warned that further eruptions could cause disastrous flooding.

The 3,471-metre Nyiragongo, is one of eight volcanoes in a chain that runs east into Rwanda, of which just two are active. The mountains are dense with tropical forest and are home to the world-famous and rare mountain gorillas.

Nyiragongo has been quiet in recent years. Its most spectacular eruption was in 1977, when a stream of lava burst through its flanks at 40 miles an hour, killing many in what scientists said was the fastest ever-recorded lava flow.

Goma has played a central role in the terrible dramas of Central Africa in recent years. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Hutus fled there after the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Many who fled to the town were suspected of participating in the massacre.

Nyiragongo had once threatened to visit calamity on the vast refugee camps near its base but was beaten to it. It erupted in December 1996 – six weeks after the Rwandan army violently cleared the camps and forced half a million people to get back over the border in just six days.

The rebel leader, Laurent Kabila, launched the rebellion that toppled the dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, from Goma. Mr Kabila went on to to become president of Congo with the help of Uganda and Rwanda but was assassinated in mysterious circumstances one year ago. His son, Joseph, has now succeeded him.

Goma has more recently become notorious for the trade in the mineral Coltan, used in the manufacture of mobile phones.

Its population swelled to 500,000 as displaced civilians flooded in to escape militia attacks in the countryside.

Last year, at last 43 people died when a ferry capsized in heavy rain on Lake Kivu and, more recently, 30 miners died when a coltan mine collapsed 30 miles from the town.

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