Goma four months after the night 'the sky turned red'

Saturday September 18 2021

One of the main streets in Goma. Life has gone back to normal with commercial activities picking up. PHOTO | FRED OLUOCH


While some residents of Nyiragongo district are picking up the pieces of their lives and rebuilding their houses, some of the families affected are still living in two camps in Kibati, with 14,000 of them now considered internally displaced, while Kayanza camp, two kilometres to the Rwanda border, has 1,000 of the displaced. FRED OLOUCH was recently there and found people trying to move on

We were about to have supper at 7pm when we heard the explosion. We abandoned the food and ran to the nearby Kilimanyuka mountains for safety,” that is how 15-year-old Alex Heshima, a resident of Kibati village in the outskirts of Goma city, described the May 22 volcano eruption of Mount Nyiragongo in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Heshima and his family spent two days in the wilderness away from the village as the volcanic eruptions lasted two days, accompanied by 92 tremors. The volcano eruption claimed the lives of 32 people and displaced over 15,000.

On my recent visit to Goma, I visited the site where lava flow reached, 20km south of Goma. The area is covered in black mounds of ugly lava and black rocks that were blown sky high from Mount Nyiragongo. On that day, they were red hot and threw an apocalyptic orange hue on Goma and surrounding villages, sending people fleeing. The lava flowed about 12km downhill, sweeping everything in its way into Lake Kivu.

A section of the tarmac on Road Number 4 that goes from Goma to Kisangani, was cut off by the lava and motorists are now forced to manouvre around the rocks and mounds of black and grey lava.


The lava site has become a major attraction for both foreign tourists and locals alike. Before this year’s eruption, the last time Mt Nyiragongo erupted was in 2002, killing 250 people. Then, the lava destroyed 40 percent of the city and more than 4,500 houses and buildings were affected.

While on the way to Mt Nyiragongo, one can see evidence of the 2002 eruptions that swept almost half of the city. Volcanic rocks are scattered all over Majengo Location where the lava reached as high as 12 feet.

Unlike the 2002 eruption when the lava flowed swiftly and furious, the latest eruption saw the lava move slowly, estimated by scientists now to have been at about one kilometre per hour which gave many people time to escape with the little they could carry. The lava ultimately stopped at the Buheme district on the northern outskirts of Goma, after destroying hundreds of homes and buildings in the area.


This photograph taken on June 5, 2021 shows the city of Goma and the Nyiragongo volcano two weeks after eruption killing 32 people. PHOTO | AFP

Around 8,000 people from Goma crossed into Rwanda, for refuge. Mt Nyiragongo, in the world-famous Virunga National Park, has erupted 34 times since 1882.

While some residents of Nyiragongo district are picking up the pieces of their lives and rebuilding their houses four months down the line, some of the families affected are still in two camps in Kibati, with 14,000 of them now considered internally displaced, while Kayanza camp, two kilometres to the Rwanda border, has 1,000 of the displaced. The government has restricted visits by outsiders so that they can heal psychologically by not being asked questions that would remind them of the terror of that day.

Daniel Hanamali, a tour guide said that most people are hesitant to rebuild their houses because they are not sure when the mountain will erupt again, despite assurance by experts assuring them that it takes about 20 years for another eruption to occur.

Mr Hanamali said that while volcanic eruptions are destructive, they also come with some blessings. For instance, the Kamchanga Hills that was created by a volcanic eruption over 80 years ago, provides hard volcanic rocks for building construction, and the hardened brown soil is used for road building in Goma. The eruptions also provide fertile volcanic soil for agriculture.

Daniel Kanyombo, 35, who sells clothes at the sprawling Birere market recounted how they lived in anxiety for two days, afraid that the lava would reach their shops and destroy their livelihood.

“We were considering moving our goods every evening to avoid possible losses, but then we decided that would be a very difficult task and decided to stay put hoping for the best. Luckily, the lava never reached Birere,” he said.

Life at the Birere Market, 15km north of Mt Nyiragongo is back to normal, with traders going about their business having forgotten the events of May 22. Birere — which covers an area of 2km square, is the commercial centre of Goma and a place where traders sell everything from vegetables, building materials, electronics to manufactured goods from Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and the United Arab Emirates.

Goma, located on the scenic shows of Lake Kivu, is city with two million people and known as a major tourist attraction in the DR Congo. The city was built around Mugoma Mountain or Mt Goma which was also a creation of an volcanic eruption. It is located on the northern shore of Lake Kivu, next to the Rwandan city of Gisenyi. The local community here if tight knit with a number of Congolese nationals who have built houses in neighbouring Rwanda and commute to work to Goma every day.


Soldiers stand guard on the solidified lava during President Felix Tshisekedi visit to Goma, on June 14, 2021. PHOTO | AFP

Goma is the sixth largest city in the DR Congo after the capital Kinshasa, Lumbumbashi, Mbuji-Mayi, Kananga and Bukavu. The city is made up of three districts, Goma, Karisimbi and Nyiragongo.

Like any other city in eastern Africa, Goma is served by thousands of motorcycle taxis, commonly known as moto, and they are double the number of vehicles in the city. It is not surprising to be stuck in a moto traffic jam stretch one kilometre long.

While the roads are narrow and few, they are in good conditions with no potholes. The United Nations Organisation Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, commonly known as Monusco, has constructed a number of roads on the northern side of the city near Lake Kivu. Monusco has been in Congo since 1999, during the All-Africa War.

Another unique feature of Goma is that petrol and diesel is sold in plastic bottles on the roadside to make up for the few petrol stations in the city. Fortunately, there are very few people who smoke in public, saving the city from fire hazards.

More than 100 days after the deadly eruption of the DR Congo's Nyiragongo volcano, survivors are still struggling to pick up their broken pieces as the upcoming rainy season adds to a list of troubles that they are already facing.

A one-hour car drive away from Goma, at the foot of the restless volcano in northeastern DR Congo, makeshift tents are the only shelter for the families, who lost everything in the deadly catastrophe in late May.

Furaha Beatrice, one of the survivors forced to leave her home in Goma, barely managing to put food on the table, is now worried whether the roof over her head will survive the rainy season from September till May in the coming year.

"When it rains, our little huts are flooded. When there is rain, we no longer sleep, because even our mattresses, our blankets, our mats, are emerged in the rainwater," said Beatrice, lamenting "an indescribable ordeal" during the rainy season for her fellow survivors who make it on their own.

"I lost my pots and casseroles in the water that flooded everywhere," said Beatrice, whose only plan is to move into a nearby tent that still seems impossible to resist the lashes of wind and rain. "When the rain falls, we could do nothing but to wait till it stops," said Aline Furaha, one of Beatrice's neighbors who is praying on a daily basis to return to her house that was engulfed by steaming lava.

According to a recent report by the UN Refugee Agency, 7,891 persons are still displaced in the affected region, and thousands of displaced individuals are still staying in spontaneous sites in poor conditions.