People from this region are accustomed to hardship. In 1994, more than one million Rwandan Hutu refugees, escaping retribution from the Tutsi-led government, fled to Goma, putting an enormous strain on the city.
Two years later, most had returned to Rwanda.
Then, civil wars erupted in late 1996 and 1998, bringing the unpopular Rwandan-backed rebelsthe Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD)into town. They set up headquarters in Goma, but were accused of allowing the population to go hungry, human rights abuses, and exploiting natural resources.
Goma is Finished
And now, the people of Gomapots, pans, and clothing bundles on their heads are on the move. Throughout the weekend, the displaced made their way into neighboring Rwanda, on motorcycle, on bicycles, crammed into cars or trucks or boats, and mostly by foot. Some headed to the high mountains, wanting to escape the lava they believed would soon pursue them.
Others walked along the highways, making their way to the three refugee camps set up by the UN in Rwanda, 18 miles (29 kilometers) away. And others still wandered around in circles, looking desperately for family or friends lost in the chaos.
The majority of the refugees were subsisting on a combination of bananas, corn, and protein biscuits handed out on the roadsides by the World Food Program (WFP).
With no fresh water available, they headed to Lake Kivu and, in sight of a 50-foot (15 meters) cloud of volcanic steam coming out of the lake, plunged in to wash and drink.
Lacking shelter, they dropped down at nightfall here and there, falling on the dusty curbs, camping in gas stations, huddling on the grass, or crawling under parked trucks.
"We do have a lot of experience in this region," says Lara Mello, a spokeswoman for WFP. "We have facilities and some infrastructurecars, telecommunications, portable warehouses, and food reserves and the likebut we can't say that just because we are better prepared it makes it any easier for anyone."
She estimates the refugees need 150 tons of food a day delivered to them to prevent them from starving.
Yesterday, against the advice of UN aid workers, tens of thousands of refugees decided to leave the camps to return home. Under a light drizzle,people walked carefully over warm molten rock, holding hankerchiefs to their noses to avoid the fumes, in search of any recognizable signs of their former lives.
What they found could not have cheered them. Looters fashioning hooks out of broken pieces of metal were "fishing" through broken store windowsthen running away as passing bands of police took pot shots at them with AK47s.
The airport and lake port have both been ruined. Roads are in disrepair. Fires are igniting all over town. Stores are burnt down. There is neither electricity nor water.
"Goma is finished. We have nothing here and no way, no money, no support, and no chance of rebuilding," says Solomon Mwanawebene, looking out a car embedded in a wall of lava. "The only reason we have come back is that it is better to die at home than die a refugee."
Nyiragongo last eruped in 1977, when an underground sea of lava drained from the crater within half an hour, spewing lava onto the towns below and killing hundreds if not thousands of people.
Tectonic Plates Causing Tremors
The eighth in a chain of volcanoes stretching eastward into Rwanda, Nyiragongo may yet erupt again, aid workers warn, adding that returning to Goma so early is a mistake.
Health workers warn of a possible cholera outbreak (the last outbreak here, in 1994, killed more than 15,000 people). UN volcanologists are flying over the volcano, trying to determine the likelihood of further eruptions. Scientists are warning of more fires, more craters opening up, and more eruptions.
Meanwhile, tremors continue to shake the ground. Their number and frequency, says volcano expert Dieudonne Wafula, suggest that the volcano has yet to settle down.
While the volcano has gotten rid of the lava, the tectonic plates of the Rift Valley are moving as they adjust and regain their stability, says Wafula, who has been studying the Nyiragongo for 15 years.
"Believe it or not, it may not be over," he said.
Copyright 2002 The Christian Science Monitor