Town faces threat of new eruption

Civil war, rising Aids rates and food crisis are more pressing issues in Goma than the threat of a volcano erupting.

The resilient residents of Goma have used volcanic rocks to rebuild their town.
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GOMA, DR Congo // Wafula Mifundu tried to warn people that their town was in danger, but they dismissed him as a quack. Yes, their town in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo sits in the shadow of an active volcano, but molten lava could never flow through Goma's streets, the residents thought.

That is until Jan 17 2002 when the Nyiragongo volcano erupted, killing 100 people and displacing 300,000. "Just before the eruption, the seismic activity was high," said Mr Mifundu, the head of research at the Goma Volcano Observatory. "We predicted that the lava would flow through the town. I made a report to the authorities, but they didn't believe me." The eastern part of this vast central African country is home to the Virunga Mountains, an active volcanic chain. But the residents of this region are living with a 10-year civil war, rising Aids rates and a food crisis, and they have bigger things to worry about than geology.

The Belgian colonisers chose to make Goma the capital of the eastern province because of its idyllic location on the northern shore of Lake Kivu. They ignored the advice of scientists who warned that the town was too close to the volcano, and Goma was levelled by an eruption in 1902. The volcano did not erupt again until 1977, but that time the lava stopped before it did any real damage. The 2002 eruption destroyed thousands of homes and vehicles.

"I was sad because many people lost belongings that they could have saved," Mr Mifundu said. "I'm sure they will listen to me next time because they saw what happened." Scientists at the observatory are monitoring the seismic activity and the ground temperature around the volcano to try to predict another eruption. The volcano is only 700 years old, relatively young in geological terms, and it could be active for another 2,000 years, Mr Mifundu said.

"It is difficult to predict, but we have to keep in our mind that one day Nyiragongo will erupt again," he said. Even more troubling, Mr Mifundu said, was that the lava could travel through an underground tunnel into the lake, where it could release carbon dioxide and put thousands at risk of poisoning. This phenomenon happened in Cameroon in 1986 when gas was released in Lake Nyos. More than 1,700 villagers who had lived along the shore were killed.

The soil in Goma is midnight black from the volcanic ash. Throughout the town, there are signs of the eruption and the recovery effort that is still going on six years later. Cars and lorries can still be seen poking out from their graves of black volcanic rock. On one of the town's main streets, a river of lava buried the ground floor of the buildings, leaving the upper floors intact. People reopened their shops in these shortened buildings.

The lava truncated the airport runway by one-third. Instead of rebuilding the tarmac, planes now make do with the shortened airstrip applying the brakes hard upon landing. Dozens of planes have crashed since the eruption. The most recent was in April when a plane slammed into shops and houses at the end of the runway. Thirty-seven people were killed. The volcano is now a tourist attraction, and guides take the handful of tourists who have been trickling back into Congo up the 3,470-metre mountain - a four-hour hike.

The resilient residents of Goma have used the volcanic rocks to rebuild their town. Men with hammers pound the black rocks into sand, which is used in making bricks or in foundations for houses. People have constructed walls from the jagged stones. At night, the top of the volcano glows an ominous red. It is a reminder to Goma's residents of the constant danger in which they live. For Justine Safi, 28, a mother of two, this was not enough to chase her from her land. The volcano destroyed her home, and she took refuge across the border in Rwanda. But she and her husband eventually returned and built a brick house with a tin roof on top of the lava that covered her land.

"It's a blessing from God that we are able to build again," she said. "The lava took everything." Richard Tabaro, 22, said he was confident that the scientists would warn him when there is an imminent eruption. He will believe them the next time, he said. "We know it can erupt any day," he said. "Every day we are on standby." Ms Safi said she knows there is a risk rebuilding her house at the base of an active volcano, but she said she had nowhere else to go.

"For now, we can say we live in a beautiful house," she said. "But one day the lava will come and dislodge us. It's as if we are renting from the volcano."