Nyiragongo volcano, overlooking Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), erupted on Saturday night, prompting the government to order the evacuation of a city whose residents were fleeing en masse.
In the early evening hours, incandescent lights began to emanate from the crater, and the smell of sulfur spread to Goma, located on the south side of the volcano, on the shores of Lake Kivu, an AFP correspondent reported.
This sudden volcanic activity immediately aroused the concern of the population, familiar with the rage of the volcano, even if the lava flow was not immediately visible from the city, nor was an earthquake felt.
“The sky has turned red. You can smell the sulfur. In the distance you can see the giant flames coming out of the mountain,” the resident told AFP.
In a message recorded and broadcast on local radios and social media, the military governor of North Kivu province “confirmed the eruption of Nyiragongo volcano on May 22 at around 7pm” local time.
“Investigations are ongoing and the population must follow civil protection guidelines,” General Constant Ndima said, calling for “calm”.
The Congolese government, which met at the crisis council in Kinshasa, very quickly ordered the evacuation of the city.
“An evacuation plan for the city of #Goma has been activated,” Communications Minister Patrick Muyaya announced on Twitter. “The government is discussing urgent measures to be taken now,” the minister added.
“From tomorrow, the government will work to establish mechanisms that will enable intervention. MONUSCO (UN mission in the country) has been invited,” he promised.
– “Pastic turtle” –
In most parts of the city, electricity was cut off, and thousands of residents, often with their families, walked in disarray on foot, motorbike or car to the nearby Rwandan border.
“People are leaving or getting ready to leave,” another resident said, as the stream of people on the run continued to grow, mattresses on their heads, packages and children in their arms, cars trumpeting.
The population headed in the direction of the border station with Rwanda, in the southern part of the city, or by road west towards Sake, towards the Congolese region of Masisi. Goma clung to the border, and the “Great Barrier,” a border station between the two countries, is located in the south of the city.
“There are a lot of people on the road, a lot of cars, it’s an escape,” a resident who took his family in a car to drive this road from Masisi to Sake told AFP.
“It’s moving at a turtle’s pace, three or four lanes at a time. Cars are full of personal belongings, mattresses in the trunks or on the roofs.”
According to an internal document from the Monusco mission, the UN helicopter in the reconnaissance flight “confirmed the eruption activities in Nyiragonga”, initially estimating that, with the flow of lava flowing towards Rwanda, the city of Goma and its surroundings are “safe”.
But in another “quick report,” Monusco, after another reconnaissance flight, indicated that the lava was “heading east but also southeast of the volcano, including toward the airport,” in the northern part of the city.
Goma is home to a large contingent of peacekeepers and many MONUSCO staff members. It is the base of many NGOs and international organizations.
Several airport-based planes, belonging to Monusco and private companies, took off in the evening to evacuate, according to a source from the airport.
“Everyone in town knows how to behave during an eruption. (…) We must not panic,” said Joseph Makundi, a civil protection coordinator in North Kivu, to local radio stations.
– “Gather the children” –
“The first thing every mother has to do is collect her children, take the necessary items, including ID cards, diplomas and property documents. Get some food, too,” he said.
The capital of northern Kivu, Goma, has nearly 600,000 inhabitants, for twelve counties. The government’s evacuation plan envisions two-thirds of them going to Rwanda.
The previous major Nyiragonga eruption dates back to January 17, 2002. It killed more than 100 people, covering with lava almost the entire eastern part of Goma, including half of the airport runway.
According to a scenario that could prove similar to an eruption on Saturday, lava flowed slowly toward the city, which halved to flow into Lake Kivu.
The victims were mostly sick, elderly or infirm people left to their fate in the northern city districts. A robbery also occurred.
The deadliest eruption in 1977 killed more than 600 people.
Located in the province of North Kivu, neighboring Uganda, the Goma region is an area of intense volcanic activity, with six volcanoes, including Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira culminating at 3,470 and 3,058 meters, respectively.
One of the characteristics of these two volcanoes is the relatively frequent “soft eruptions” of lava flows that flow on the sides, and not the explosion in the crater. This was the case at the time of the January 2002 eruption.
In a May 10 report, the Goma Volcanological Observatory called for “vigilance,” while “seismic-volcanic activity on Nyiragonga” increased, deserving “special monitoring attention”.