Volcanic Eruption Devastates War-Weary Congo City

Danna Harman
The Christian Science Monitor
January 22, 2002

In Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Laurence Kangeshenge fled in her four-inch heels—the fake Guccis she bought last week at the second- hand market here.

Now a refugee in Rwanda, she stumbles uphill over the uneven ground with a jerry can of water strapped to her back, cursing her footwear, the volcano, and the Congo all in one breath.

"We are born into war. We live through war. We fear war. And then we get a volcano," she says, wiping away a tear.

Once a popular playground for white settlers in Africa, and described in the 1950s as a "heaven on Earth," Goma has in the past decade become almost synonymous with misery.

The 11,400-foot (3,377 meters) Mount Nyiragongo—one of Africa's deadliest volcanoes—erupted Thursday, spewing orange lava onto this lakefront town. Swathes of magma up to 165 feet (50 meters) wide oozed down streets, burning everything in their wake and finally pouring into Lake Kivu, contaminating the water with poisonous ash. A blanket of hot air and sulfurous steam hung over the smoldering ruins of the city.

Now, cooling lava is leaving walls of black stone, in some places five feet high, which crisscrosses the town, cutting off one section from another.

The volcano, which wrecked about 40 percent of the town and sent an estimated 350,000 people fleeing across the border into Rwanda, is the latest in a long line of disasters to befall this lush region.

The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that 200,000 of those are children under 15—half of them under five years old.

About 40 people are believed to have died in Thursday's eruption, and another dozen from inhalation of the fumes, but reports are unconfirmed.

Accustomed to Hardship

On Monday, lava flows ignited a gas station, killing between 30 and 50 people who were trying to siphon gas from elevated tanks, according to witness reports. More than a dozen 50-gallon (189 liters) barrels in the gas station store room exploded continually for hours, sending 100-foot (30 meters) flames into the air, as a black plume of smoke hung over Goma for hours.

"In humanitarian terms, people from Goma have endured perhaps the worst series of crises imaginable," says Paul Stromberg, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). "And now, they are faced with this incredible natural disaster. It's too much."

He could not say if and how long it might take for the city to be rebuilt and for people to be able to reclaim their former lives.

Continued on Next Page >>



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