Mount Nyiragongo’s Lava Has Stopped Flowing, but the Problems Could Be Just Beginning

Mount Nyiragongo’s Lava Has Stopped Flowing, but the Problems Could Be Just Beginning
Goma residents are seen leaving the city following a sudden activity of Nyiragongo. (Photo: Guerchom Ndebo/AFP, Getty Images)

In the wake of an unexpected eruption at Mount Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Saturday, more than 150 children have been separated from their families and another 170 are feared missing, according to the UNICEF. Tens of thousands of adults are also scattered across the region, including scores that have crossed the border into Rwanda in an effort to escape the lava.

“Scores of children in the area near Goma’s airport have been left homeless and destitute,” the agency said in a release.

Fractures opened on the volcano’s flanks this weekend, sending lava flows, some as high as a three-story building, oozing toward the major city of Goma and into the surrounding area. Thousands spent the night outside. An estimated 25,000 went northwest for refuge to the Democratic Republic of Congo town of Sake. Many evacuees — estimates range from 5,000 to 8,000 — went southeast and crossed the border into Rwanda. The country’s public broadcaster said on Twitter that authorities were developing a plan to provide space for those in need, and that they’d readied schools and places of worship for them to stay.

The last time Mount Nyiragongo erupted in 2002, it killed 250 people and left 120,000 homeless. That previous eruption loomed large in Goma residents’ minds as they fled. The volcano’s deadliest eruption, in 1977, took more than 600 lives.

Fifteen were killed in this weekend’s eruption, including nine who perished in a traffic accident while fleeing and four who tried to escape Munzenze prison in Goma. Two were burned to death, government spokesman Patrick Muyaya said in a statement. Harrowing reports of the evacuations include a woman explaining that she was forced to leave her sick husband to burn. One woman went into labour and was forced to give birth while fleeing.

Lava has stopped flowing and largely spared Goma, though not the surrounding towns and villages. UNICEF said that people are returning to their homes. Yet the agency fears what the evacuees will return to since the eruption destroyed hundreds of houses and took water and electricity for thousands offline. Though Goma was largely able to avoid direct impacts from lava, Reuters reported that the city’s main power supply was cut off.

Youth in the Democratic Republic of the Congo already face grave threats to safety including widespread poverty, malnutrition, and recruitment by armed, violent groups, and attacks by those groups on schools and children’s hospitals.

A UNICEF team has been deployed to affected parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to install chlorination water points to limit the spread of cholera. The team is also working with Congolese authorities to open two transit centres for children separated from their families.