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Congo: The Legacy—And Now Present Threat—of the Volcano

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Congo: The Legacy—And Now Present Threat—of the Volcano

Posted by Chloe Christman and John Bagwell on November 16, 2011

Congo: The Legacy—And Now Present Threat—of the Volcano

Eastern Congo’s Nyamuragira volcano has been erupting at an epic scale near the city of Goma over the past few days. Having returned from Goma less than two weeks ago to capture stories not traditionally heard about life surrounded by conflict in eastern Congo, we’re left thinking about the impact these volcanoes have on daily life in the region.

As if conflict in this part of the country isn’t  enough, Goma is situated in one of the most geologically tumultuous locations on earth, surrounded by several highly active volcanoes rising over the horizon. It’s unlikely that lava will reach the city at this time, but the plume of smoke hovering above and the bursts of red lava against the night sky serve as a powerful reminder of the still fresh memories of the 2002 eruption from the Nyiragongo volcano that looms over Goma. 

As we interviewed people about the moments that shaped who they are today, they independently brought up what happened to them the day of the dramatic eruption a decade ago. Fidel, Enough’s field researcher, told us of how he ensured his family’s safety by taking them across the border to Rwanda, out of the path of destruction, only to drive back alone towards the flowing lava. Always driven by curiosity, he couldn’t bear to not witness the event for himself. 

Denise, a lawyer for victims of sexual violence, told us that she heard rumors that the volcano was erupting, but her principal source of news, government-run radio programs, were telling people not to worry. Finally, right before the lava starting streaming into the city, she and her neighbors decided to flee. With very little warning or time to take many—or in some cases any—possessions with them, they too crossed into Rwanda. As a student just starting her first semester of law school, Denise grabbed the most important item she owned at the time without even thinking: her law book.

The lava from the 2002 eruption eventually covered 70 percent of the city, destroying everything in its path. As we drove down a particularly bumpy and lava-rock-filled street, we wondered about the logistical challenges of rebuilding after such an event and asked Fidel how the roads were cleared after the lava cooled.

“People came out of their homes with chisels and hammered away until they were barely passable. It still looks this way because nothing has been done since,” he said. Just then we passed what had been a huge cathedral in the city, now just a single stone wall left behind from the volcano’s path.

Despite all the negatives associated with the disaster, life of course went on after the eruption. People returned to the city a few days after the lava passed and instantly started to rebuild. Almost all the walls in the city are now made from precariously stacked lava rock, which look as if they could topple over at any moment. People have built entire neighborhoods on top of lava beds. And “fields” of bean plants are seen everywhere growing between rocks, surprisingly healthy in such a harsh landscape due to the fertile soil beneath.

While most reporting from eastern Congo focuses on the man-made disasters, these conversations added another dimension to our understanding of the daily challenges of life in the region, as well as a powerful illustration of perseverance. The eruption was a moment that changed everyone’s life in and around Goma. The event remains a marker in time, with stories and experiences framed as happening either before or after that moment. And its aftermath is still impacting daily lives today, in the way it shapes the natural landscape and in the way the threat of another eruption at any time affects the way people live, work, and interact.

We were surprised this theme would emerge as such a strong part of the stories we were collecting. As we were checking out of our hotel in Goma, we noticed yet another reminder of the significance that hung in the lobby: a large painting depicting people fleeing their homes away from red lava flowing down from Nyiragongo. We’re keeping our eye on the current activity of Nyamuragira, thankful that it’s still looking as though it will spare the streets of Goma, but aware of the memories it must conjure.

Photo: Volcanoes provide a dramatic backdrop for life in the eastern Congo city of Goma (Enough/John Bagwell)