Goma: a miraculous escape

Fiery volcano crater at night

Nyiragongo volcano near Goma, DR Congo: the city has had a narrow escape. Photo: Nina R from Africa, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Anthea and Martin Gordon, CMS short termers, are based in Goma, where Martin is serving the Anglican Church as vicar general and Anthea is working with Tearfund. Martin reports on Goma’s miraculous escape.

On Monday 10 May the Goma Volcanic Observatory filed a report of increased seismic activity in Nyiragongo. However, World Bank funding had been cut a few months previously due to concerns about corruption, and the observatory had no way to widely share the findings nor to adequately monitor the volcano. The residents of Goma were relying on an early warning of increased activity. 

On Saturday 22 May at around 7pm local time, Mount Nyiragongo erupted, lighting up the night sky and sending plumes of fire into the air and molten lava towards the city of Goma with its 2 million inhabitants. There had been no official warning, nor the usual tremors that presage an eruption. 

Information was patchy and inaccurate, with uncertainty at first as to which of the two volcanoes had erupted and whether it was heading north towards the national park, east towards Rwanda or south towards Goma. The whole city was awake. Information, images and videos started to circulate on social media, some of the current eruption, some of lava flows from other eruptions and other parts of the world. Residents started fleeing east to Gisenyi, over the nearby border with Rwanda and west along the 20km road to Sake. The Rwandan border remained closed until around 5,000 people forced their way across. 

The tremors came afterwards as the lava started heading towards the city. The flight towards Sake became a mass exodus, and soon afterwards the road was blocked to traffic. Tens of thousands fled, with mattresses, food, water, pots and pans, and children in tow. By midnight the lava was well on its way towards the city, travelling slowly but surely south. The city, in which well over 90 per cent would say they are Christian, prayed as it fled. Some neighbourhoods had already been burnt to the ground – including the church building and all the houses and fields in our parishes of Kanyanja, near the volcano, and also in Kyanzaya’s neighbourhood of Buhene. 

A UNESCO helicopter went to survey the situation and reported that the lava flow was slowing. Miraculously at around 2.30am on Sunday morning, the lava flow stopped less than 1km from the airport. 

As day dawned people started the long road back to the city. As the population returned we left to travel towards Sake, and then beyond, a journey of 45 minutes, that took us four-and-a-half hours as we passed tens of thousands of returnees. We are staying out of Goma for now, as the city is still on red alert. The tremors have become more intense, cracks have opened up in the past 24 hours in various parts of town, including outside the general hospital. The fear is that lava could erupt from any of the previous fissures, with all of these areas declared as red zones. 

Incredibly casualties are still low, an overturned truck on the road to Sake, four escapee prisoners, one or two crushed in stampedes, and a few people burned by the lava or caught by gas as they walked across the still-burning rocks. There are also more than a hundred children in Goma and over the border in Gisenyi who are still not reunited with their parents. Schools remain closed. Some buildings have collapsed. People are still fearful to sleep in their homes. The new military governor is leading the government’s response and humanitarian agencies have started to provide emergency sanitation, food and water.

For now, there is relative calm. But the ongoing tremors are making the population very nervous. There is a real sense that Goma has just had a miraculous escape. Please continue to pray.

Originally published on the Gordons’ blog, where there are more pictures and future updates.

Published 25 May 2021

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