Congo’s Mount Nyiragongo unleashed lava that destroyed more than 500 homes on the outskirts of Goma, but witnesses said Sunday that the city of 2 million had been mostly spared after the volcano erupted at night and sent thousands fleeing in panic.
Authorities said at least five people had died in a road crash while trying to leave Goma, but cautioned it was too early to give a death toll in the hardest hit communities.
Residents said there was little warning before the dark sky turned a fiery red, leading to fears that the eruption could cause the same kind of devastation as the last time in 2002 when hundreds died.
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The U.N. peacekeeping mission had said late Saturday that it didn’t appear the lava was flowing toward Goma based on reconnaissance flights, but untold thousands still set off fearing the worst. Some boarded boats onto Lake Kivu while others attempted to reach Mount Goma, the highest elevation point.
Thousands of others fled across the nearby border to Rwanda, where the national broadcaster reported that one Congolese woman had given birth on her way into Rwanda fleeing the volcanic eruption.
On Sunday, residents ventured out to assess the damage after a night of panic. Smoke rose from smoldering heaps of lava in the Buhene area near the city.
“We have seen the loss of almost an entire neighborhood,” said Innocent Bahala Shamavu. “All the houses in Buhene neighborhood were burned and that’s why we are asking all the provincial authorities and authorities at the national level as well as all the partners, all the people of good faith in the world, to come to the aid of this population.”
The U.N. peacekeeping mission known as MONUSCO tweeted dramatic footage of the city alit, saying it was conducting reconnaissance flights over Goma where it maintains a large base.
“The lava doesn’t seem to be headed toward the city of Goma. We remain on alert,” it said.
Some sought refuge aboard boats on Lake Kivu, while others fled to Mount Goma, the highest point in the metropolitan area. Dorcas Mbulayi left her home about an hour after the volcano first showed signs of erupting.
“We were eating when a friend of dad’s called him on the phone and told him to go and look outside,” said Mbulayi, who was still a child the last time the volcano erupted. “Dad told us that the volcano was erupting and that we were going to go to Mount Goma to escape the lava of the volcano.”
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She also blamed authorities “for not informing us in time about the possible volcanic eruption.”
The lack of immediate announcements from authorities and conflicting accounts circulating on social media only added to the sense of chaos in Goma.
Elsewhere witnesses said lava had engulfed one highway connecting Goma with the city of Beni. However, the airport appeared to be spared the same fate as 2002 when lava flowed onto the runways.
Goma is a regional hub for many humanitarian agencies in the region, as well as the U.N. peacekeeping mission. While Goma is home to many U.N. peacekeepers and aid workers, much of surrounding eastern Congo is under threat from a myriad of armed groups vying for control of the region’s mineral resources.