Congo’s Mount Nyiragongo unleashed lava that destroyed homes on the outskirts of Goma, but witnesses said Sunday that the city of two million had been mostly spared after the volcano erupted at night and sent thousands fleeing in panic.
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 that occurred the last time in 2002, when hundreds died. There was no official word on how many people may have been killed amid the scramble to flee the city late Saturday.
A United Nations peacekeeping mission had said the lava didn’t appear to be flowing toward Goma based on reconnaissance flights, but untold thousands still set off in search of safety.
Some boarded boats onto Lake Kivu, while others attempted to reach Mount Goma, the highest elevation point. At least 3,000 fled across the nearby border into Rwanda, according to immigration officials. Traffic was in gridlock in some areas of Goma as people tried to leave.
On Sunday, residents ventured out to assess the damage after a night of panic. Smoke rose from smouldering heaps of lava in the Buhene area near the city.
WATCH | Volcanic eruption in Democratic Republic of the Congo forces thousands to flee:
As the sun rose, a smouldering black gash could be seen where the lava had cooled to rubble. At some points, it reached three storeys high, engulfing even large buildings.
“We have seen the loss of almost an entire neighborhood,” said Innocent Bahala Shamavu. “All the houses in Buhene neighbourhood 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.”
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 in 2002, when lava flowed onto the runways.
Goma is a regional hub for many humanitarian agencies in the region, as well as the UN peacekeeping mission known as MONUSCO. While Goma is home to many UN peacekeepers and aid workers, much of surrounding eastern Congo is under threat from myriad armed groups vying for control of the region’s mineral resources.
Nyiragongo’s previous eruption in 2002 killed 250 people and left 120,000 homeless. It is one of the world’s most active volcanoes and is considered among the most dangerous. Saturday’s eruption appears to have been caused when fractures opened in the volcano’s side, causing lava flows in various directions.
Experts were worried that the volcanic activity observed in the past five years at Nyiragongo mirrors that in the years preceding eruptions in 1977 and 2002.