Above: Nyiragongo erupting. Image by Ranjeet Mangat
Published in The East African Nation media – 31 May 2021
“I was driving with my friend when we saw fire coming from Nyiragongo.”
It’s Ranjeet Singha Mangat my 24-year-old relative on the phone from Goma recounting the ordeal since Nyiragongo erupted on Saturday night, 22 May, in his French accent.
“It was 7 o’clock in the evening and at first we thought that a fire had broken out in one of the villages on the slopes of the mountain. But the volcano had erupted. People had started running in panic everywhere trying to find somewhere safe.”
The lava had flowed out from one of the fissures on the lower slopes of the mountain followed by an eruption, turning the night sky red.
On that Saturday there was no sleep for him or his father Bantou Singh Mangat or the rest of the people in Goma. The senior Mangat was there in the 2002 eruption and had immediately left for Kigali in neighbouring Rwanda with his young family. Bantou has lived in Goma all his life, his parents buried in Goma and he’s not going anywhere soon unless it’s the last resort. But this time round, the road has been damaged and because of Covid-19, it’s difficult to cross the border.
While we’re on the phone, I hear people shrieking in the background. “Auntie, l have to call you back. It’s another earthquake happening now,” he hangs up, the panic in his clear. This is Wednesday afternoon, a surreal conversation.
As a safety measure, the Mangat duo had erected a tent in the garden if they had to move out of the brick house on Lake Kivu’s shores, an effluent neighbourhood that once had the deposed Mobutu as a neighbour. Today, it has a bevy of UN staff and peacekeepers living there.
In the next conversation with Ranjeet later on Wednesday night, he tells of the horrors he’s seen. “There are so many lost children everywhere. And I’ve seen people dead,” he tells. “People who live near the mountain in houses that are not built properly with septic tanks too shallow. People have died breathing the toxic fumes from the gases coming out of the septic tanks. They turn grey with red boils on their skin.”
In 2002, the lava had swept through Goma but the present eruption has stopped short of coming into the CBD but the outskirts are black smouldering lava, destroying the poorer neigbourhoods closer to the volcano.
It’s a bizarre situation.
“All the U.N. people have left. There’s no help coming from anywhere. People don’t know what to do because no one is giving us any information,” he continues.
Now, it’s Thursday morning.
Ranjeet’s text message is that at around 3 a.m. Thursday morning the North Kivu military governor Constant Ndima has sent the following message: ‘Presence of magma under Goma urban area with an extension under Lake Kivu. At present an eruption on land or under lake could come with little or no precursors.
Everyone must leave Goma.
Ranjeet’s texts: ‘Goma is in big danger. Scientists predict there will eruption in the earth or under the lake, so evacuation is taking place immediately.’
While Bantou insisted on his son leaving Goma to Mushaki in the hills on the western side, a hundred kilometres away, he himself remained, stubborn to the core that Goma is the only place he has lived in – and he’s not leaving until the very end.
“There were thousands of people on the road, travelling in matatus and on bicycles,” recounts Ranjeet. “It took five hours to cover 36 kilometres.”
Once past that, he was soon in Mushaki.
Nyiragongo Turns Tempremental
Thursday night, there’s a text message from Bantu in Goma. “There is a German team of scientists who have come to Goma. They say that the earthquakes have reached their peak and the situation will be back to normal in a few hours or days. Volcano is in no danger of erupting.”
According to him, there are scientists from many parts of the world looking at Nyiragongo to determine future decisions.
It’s a brief sight of relief.
But in the early hours of Friday morning, Nyiragongo’s sent the earth trembling with another strong earthquake.
It’s left everyone perplexed for this is no ordinary eruption.
While many are still in Goma, others are fleeing to safer ground to towns like Sake 25 kilometres northwest of Goma and to Rutshuru 70 kilometres north of Goma. Already there’s concern over cholera outbreak in Sake.
Twixt the Fiery Nyiragogo and the Volatile Lake Kivu
Nyiragongo defines Goma. It like what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, the pyramids to Cairo and the Taj Mahal to Agra.
But where the others are inanimate, Nyiragongo is fiery.
And few towns can boast of being caught between a volatile volcano and a limnic lake, but Goma in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo does just that.
“Goma,” told me Kasereka Celestin, “means drumbeat in Kiswahili.” Kasereka is head of scientific research at the Goma Volcano Observatory (GVO) and one of the three volcanologists in DRC. When Nyiragongo rumbles, it sounds like drums being beaten – hence the name – Goma.
This was in 2019 when l visited Goma. Kasereka showed me around the state-of-the art observatory with the latest gadgets monitoring the seismic activity in Nyiragongo and the rest – 24/7.
Posted in and around Goma were different coloured flags to alert the people if the volcano was going to erupt, days in advance.
What the citizens of Goma did not know was that there was little happening at the Observatory for the last seven months. World Bank had cut funding because of corruption.
Hence no red flags were up days before Nyiragongo erupted.
Nyiragongo is part of the Virunga enclave – more famous for the mountain gorillas – in the Albertine Rift that is the western arm of the Great Rift Valley. Of the eight volcanoes shared between DRC, Rwanda and Uganda, the two active ones are in DRC and very close to Goma: Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira. The rest are dormant.
It left a smouldering lava lake in Nyiragongo crater that became a tourist hotspot as one of the four volcanoes in the world with a molten lake in the crater.
160 people died. And people fled.
The fire took three months to extinguish.
It split Goma’s airport terminal from the flight path, and ironically pushed through the slum and the main town leaving the posh side of town intact. Finally it poured into Lake Kivu falling short of reaching the carbon-dioxide zone that would have killed almost everyone in town like Lake Nyos did in Cameroon in 1986.
Goma came to a standstill – like now.
Limnic Lake Kivu
Shared between Rwanda and DRC, it is one of the African Great Lakes and prone to a limnic eruption once every 1000 years.
A limnic eruption is when the lake water overturns and the dissolved carbon dioxide erupts from the depths of the lake forming a gas cloud that kills.