Facebook Twitter

Congolese scramble over lava

Refugees ignore warnings; mount keeps trembling

SHARE Congolese scramble over lava

GOMA, Congo — Thousands of Congolese refugees ignored warnings from relief workers Sunday and scrambled around rivers of lava or over the still hot crust of older flows, trying to get home even as Mount Nyiragongo continued to tremble and smoke.

U.N. officials want the refugees, estimated to number 300,000, to take shelter in relief camps. The volcano, the workers said, remains dangerous and the air in the burned-out city of Goma may be polluted with poison gas from the lava.

Water purification plants were wiped out as the molten rock poured into the city of 500,000. Returning refugees were turning to polluted Lake Kivu for drinking water.

Nevertheless, many of the Congolese who fled to Rwanda said they would rather go home to begin rebuilding than live in U.N. camps.

"My house is still there, and I have heard that the lava has stopped," said schoolteacher Augustin Mirenge. "The weather is so cold, we can't go to (the camp). It's in a forest, so the conditions are harsh and there are many mosquitos."

U.N. officials then said they have not yet determined whether Goma is safe.

"We have been advised that people should, on no account, be advised to go back to Goma now," said Laura Melo, a spokeswoman for the U.N. World Food Program. She said it was imperative that the refugees report to the camps in order to receive food, water and shelter.

There are reports of 40 dead, but Congolese and U.N. officials say conditions are too chaotic to be sure.

Lava was still flowing into Lake Kivu, but the flow had not expanded beyond the 165-foot wide swath already cut through the city.

A 10-foot deep crust had formed over the river of molten rock running underneath, forming a bridge for the thousands of residents trying to get home for the first time since the eruption began on Thursday.

The volcano 12 miles north of Goma sent two lava flows into the city of half a million. A third flow was coming from a new volcanic crater on the Rwandan border. About 40 percent of Goma was destroyed, but people living on higher ground escaped the destruction.

A few earth tremors continued to shake the region Sunday, but the frequency dropped from 12 an hour, to one every three or four hours. Tremor frequency is a guage of lava flow.

Dieudonne Waffulah, a Congolese vulcanologist who has been monitoring the volcano for 10 years without pay, said he believes the eruptions are done for now and that some residents can return home.

"It's now a bit calm, the people can come back if they live far from the lava," Waffulah said. "But they shouldn't go very close to the lava because of the fumes."

Melo said three U.N. vulcanologists arrived Sunday and have begun studying Nyiragongo to determine if it threatens more eruptions. She said the experts would need several days to make an assessment and would consider the volcano dangerous in the meantime.

By Sunday afternoon, only about 5,000 people had reported to the two camps where food was being distributed for the first time.

Rwandan-backed rebel leaders who control Goma complained that three days after the eruption, no aid had reached the city where 180,000 residents not forced to flee remained without electricity or drinkable water. Much of the city's food supply was destroyed by the lava when it engulfed 90 percent of the central business district.

"It is not a very positive response to the suffering of the people of Congo," Adolphe Onusumba, the leader of the Congolese Rally for Democracy said.

The Red Cross said it had resumed providing materials to Goma's undamaged hospital and was working with Congolese engineers to repair one of the city's water treatment plants.

While he would not encourage Congolese to return to Goma, Onusumba said he would not try to stop them.

The rebel leader said he understood residents' reluctance to live in camps. These people had seen more than 1 million Hutu refugees flee into the Goma area from Rwanda fearing retribution after more than a half million minority Tutsis were slaughtered in April 1994.

"You will never convince someone from Goma to live in a refugee camp, they know what it is like," Onusumba said.

Nearly 10,000 Congolese have already boarded barges for the trip down Lake Kivu to Bukavu or Kalemie where many have family and friends. Many said they didn't want food, only transportation so that they wouldn't have to sleep in Gisenyi's churches, schools and roadsides.

"We need transportation to remove us from here," said Fifi Banza, as she boarded an overcrowded barge. "Why should you put us in small camps ... when our country is so big?"

Melo said U.N. officials have concentrated on setting up the camps and have not yet considered providing boats or buses to take the Congolese back to their country. While there was a U.N. team in Goma on Sunday, she admitted that no U.N. aid had been delivered to residents there.

Cargo planes carrying tons of supplies for the displaced have begun arriving in Kigali, Rwanda from where the aid will be trucked to the Congolese border, 75 miles to the west.

The 11,381-foot Nyiragongo and 10,022-foot Nyamulagira volcanoes north of Goma are the only two active in the eight-mountain Virunga chain. Nyiragongo last erupted seriously in January 1977.