'Everything could be eaten by the volcano again'

Nicolas Muhamiriza remembers watching from atop a small hill as red rivers of molten lava crept over his city, swallowing his sprawling villa.

Muhamiriza (47) was once the owner of a thriving bottling plant. Now he’s among thousands in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern city of Goma who struggle to pay rent for wooden shacks, their livelihoods destroyed nearly four years ago when lava submerged schools, hospitals and houses.

Scientists and officials fear Goma could one day be incinerated by Nyiragongo, the volcano that looms over the city. But Goma’s fertile volcanic soil and strategic location on the tip of Lake Kivu still draw people eager to participate in the lively markets that trade with neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda.

City officials would like to move Goma’s population roughly 50km west, to the towns of Sake and Kirotshe.
Few people, however, can afford to leave, and their government cannot afford to help.

“If I had the money, I would move tomorrow, but where would I go?” Caleb Kabanda said with a shrug. “Here, maybe I can find a job. Outside, it will be impossible.”

Kabanda, a 31-year-old former English teacher whose career was abruptly cut short when the volcano turned his school into cinders, said he has spent the past four years surviving on odd jobs.

One million at risk

Goma’s population is set to double in five years, according to deputy mayor Deo Katindi. That would put more than one million people at risk.

“I believe that Goma will disappear from the map,” said Katindi, sitting in an office about 200m from a vast expanse of black stones and ash, where a river of lava flowed through the city. Katindi himself lost his house, car and all his personal belongings.

Katindi is a member of a planning committee that a year ago decided that the best strategy was to try to lure people away by investing in Sake and Kirotshe. Katindi said that Goma has appealed for funds from the international community, but received nothing.

As a result, no concrete steps have been taken toward moving.

Katindi said even a small investment in the towns outside Goma will go a long way. He said $100 000 would be a good start at getting the people of Goma out of the shadow of a volcano that scientists confirm is lively and a serious hazard.

Only Italy’s Mount Vesuvius is more dangerous than Nyiragongo—which has erupted five times since 1902—in terms of the threat it poses to human populations, said Celestin Kasereka, a volcanologist at Goma’s volcano observatory, where seismic and volcanic is monitored.

“We don’t know when the volcano will erupt,” Kasereka said. “But it could easily be worse than the last time.”

During Nyiragongo’s relatively small eruption on January 18 2002, nearly 80% of Goma’s economic activity was wiped out by slow-moving lava that cut across the central markets.

That day, 300 000 people were forced to evacuate Goma, and 120 000 were left homeless. Most returned in the coming weeks, possessing nothing more than the tattered clothes on their bodies.

‘We must forget’

“We have no choice, we must forget,” said Bijou Bernabe, sitting in a green dress on the roof of her now rock-filled house, buried among the charred brown carcasses of several cars whose frames jutted awkwardly out from the black volcanic rocks around her.

“If there is an eruption, we will run away again,” said Bernabe (29), licking at wet dough dripping from her fingers as she prepared fried dumplings to sell. “But two days later all of us will return. The volcano is a part of our lives.”

But many citizens in Goma, where the rotten smell of sulphur regularly wafts down from the volcano’s crater, believe that the next eruption might very well be their last.

“That smell is a warning,” says Pierre Muhindo (46), father of three and a long-time security guard in Goma. “Stone after stone will fall on the earth, before we all go to heaven.”

Muhamiriza, the bottling-plant owner, admits to being scared. But he, too, cannot afford to leave.

Muhamiriza continues to bottle drinks, but on a smaller scale after losing equipment in the eruption. His “factory” is a small room in Goma with a few machines.

As he talked, his eight-year-old son, Gad, came home from school.

“Did they not throw you from school today?”

Gad shook his head.

“I am sure that tomorrow they will throw my son out,” Muhamiriza said, explaining he has been unable to afford school fees.

He sat in front of his house, his fly-covered feet balanced on black swirls of solid lava, a constant reminder of the day he fled a fuming Nyiragongo with his wife and seven children.

“Everything that I work for could be eaten by the volcano again.”—Sapa-AP

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