Residents search for dead killed by Congo’s volcano eruption

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Residents searched for missing loved ones amid their destroyed homes on the outskirts of Congo’s eastern city of Goma Monday, where light aftershocks were detected in the area following the eruption of a large volcano two days earlier.

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With little warning Mount Nyiragongo had turned the dark sky fiery red on Saturday night and then spewed torrents of lava into villages, killing at least 15 people and destroying more than 500 homes, officials and survivors said.

Grief, disbelief and fear hung over the area as seven government ministers, including Congo’s prime minister and health minister, visited Goma.

Smoke rose from the cooling lava that covered part of the Nyiragongo region. Some people walked on the crust formed by hardening lava.

Scientists at the Volcanic Observatory of Goma were not able to adequately warn the public of the eruption because of a funding cut, the observatory’s scientific director of Celestin Kasereka Mahinda said.

“The observatory no longer has the support of the central government or of external donors, which explains why the volcanic eruption was such a surprise,” Mahinda told The Associated Press. A partnership between the government and the World Bank that had supported the observatory was cut in October 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving the observatory without even internet, he said.

This general view taken on May 22, 2021 from Tchegera Island outsoide Goma on the lake Kivu in the East of the Democratic Republic of Congo shows flame spewing from the Nyiragongo volcano. (AFP)
This general view taken on May 22, 2021 from Tchegera Island outsoide Goma on the lake Kivu in the East of the Democratic Republic of Congo shows flame spewing from the Nyiragongo volcano. (AFP)

The observatory had just started to resume operations last month thanks to new funding from the US Geological Survey’s Volcano Disaster Assistance Program, which means the observatory can at least gather data after the eruption, he said.

The volcano remains active and earthquake tremors are being recorded, he said, calling on the population to remain vigilant.

The government ministers visiting Goma Monday, including Prime Minister Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde, were assessing what aid is needed for those hurt by the eruption.

“The government team dispatched expressly here in Goma, following the volcanic eruption which caused a lot of damage in the city,” Minister of Public Health Jean-Jacques Mbungani said. “It is important that a strong signal from our government is given. We will have discussions with the military governor as well as with all the stakeholders so that we can identify avenues for quick solutions for the population.”

The volcano eruption caused about 5,000 people to flee from one neighborhood of Goma, a city of about 2 million people, across the nearby border into Rwanda. Another 25,000 others sought refuge to the northwest in Sake, the UN children’s agency said.

More than 170 children were still feared missing, and UNICEF officials said they were organizing transit centers to help unaccompanied children in the wake of the disaster as more than 150 children were reportedly separated from their families.

Goma ultimately was largely spared the mass destruction caused by Mt. Nyiragongo’s last eruption in 2002. Hundreds died then and more than 100,000 people were left homeless.

Goma is a regional hub for many humanitarian agencies as well as a UN peacekeeping mission. Much of surrounding eastern Congo is threatened by a multitude of armed groups vying for control of the region’s lucrative mineral resources.

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