500,000 flee Congo volcano

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE, MD | January 18, 2002

In what many are calling a

human catastrophe, a six-foot wall of lava from Mount

Nyiragongo has engulfed Goma, Congo. The Goma area is

home to some 500,000 people.

The volcano, which erupted Thursday and was still

spewing smoke Friday, lies about six miles north of Goma.

Dozens of people are dead, and hundreds of thousands

have fled either to Giseyni, a town across the border in

Rwanda, or into the forest trying to make their way to

Kisangane, reported the Lutheran World Federation (LWF).

On Friday lava was less than three miles away from

Giseyni, where thousands of evacuees were being housed

in schools and churches. Relief officials described the

situation in Giseyni as chaotic, and refugees have

little food, water, or shelter.

Goma is deserted and the town has been destroyed, with

houses and buildings completely engulfed by lava and

reduced to fiery ash. More than a dozen villages on the

outskirts of Goma have been incinerated.

Christian Aid, which has made $50,000 available for

emergency relief, has warned that further eruptions

could cause serious flooding in the area. "There are

many active volcanoes under Lake Kivu which stretches

from Goma south along the border between Rwanda and

Congo," explained Marian Matshikiza, a Christian Aid

senior field officer in the region. "These could be

triggered by the eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano

resulting in a dramatic rise of the level of the lake,

potentially causing loss of life and further

displacement of people."

There is a large and densely populated island in the

middle of Lake Kivu that is particularly vulnerable to

flooding, she added.

Faith-based organizations are trying to offer an

emergency response to what they are suggesting is

potentially a huge disaster, according to reports from

Action by Churches Together (ACT). ACT is a worldwide

network of churches and related agencies that coordinate

emergency response to human need.

ACT member Christian Aid has made $72,000 available for

emergency aid, and ACT partner Norwegian Church Aid

(NCA) is assessing damages, although details were

sketchy Friday. NCA, working with partners in Bukavu, is

sending a team that includes a physician.

ACT will likely respond with emergency funds as well.

Both Church World Service and Week of Compassion, a

giving program administered by the Christian Church

(Disciples of Christ), are planning to support an ACT


Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) is working with

ACT as well. PDA has also been supporting a project to

rebuild the health infrastructure of Congo by

strengthening the work of mission hospitals. PDA has an

assessment team on the ground in Rwanda and is making

$25,000 available for the immediate purchase of food and


The Mennonite Central Committee, which has worked with

Christian Aid and other organizations to administer food

security programs in Congo, was following the news and

assessing a future response, said spokesperson Willie


People urgently need plastic sheeting for shelter,

blankets, and kitchen utensils, reported LWF. Water

supplies are also critical, and already thousands of

people have not eaten since the eruption.

LWF field personnel were concerned that, once people

have fled into the forest, they can't be reached with

relief supplies.

ACT has been in frequent contact with staff of the

Bureau Oecumenique d'Appui au Development (BOAD). BOAD

staff evacuated from Goma to Gisenyi in what was a

narrow escape.

The Goma airport is closed because lava has engulfed the

runways. Relief groups were still determining how to

airlift in supplies. "That's very cost-prohibitive,"

explained Annie Weirether, spokesperson for AmeriCares.

"To airlift one shipment out of Europe to Congo would be

between $40,000 and $70,000."

Congo's port was also destroyed, as were water supply


The International Red Cross reported that access was a

huge obstacle to relief efforts. A Red Cross warehouse,

workshop garages, and seven trucks were destroyed. World

Vision's office in Goma was leveled by lava flows as


Weirether added that relief leaders were hoping there

would not be an ensuing cholera outbreak.

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) initially allocated

$50,000 toward relief. CRS is working with Caritas Goma

and other local Congo partners to respond to immediate

needs and to assess the long-term impact.

Baptist World Aid sent $10,000 and medicines as an

initial response. We are on the verge of an enormous

catastrophe, said Paul Montacute, director.

Mount Nyiragongo is one of Africa's most active

volcanoes and is located in eastern Congo, near the

border with Rwanda. This was the worst eruption of the

11,000-foot Mount Nyiragongo since January 1977, when

some 2,000 people died in less than 30 minutes when a

3,000-foot river of molten rock flowed at 60 miles per

hour. It was the fastest lava flow on record.

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