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Catastrophe in the Congo

January 22, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Mt. Nyiragongo awoke Thursday as lava exploded out of its sidewalls. Early reports said 40 died, but those reports have been hard to verify. Rivers of lava up to 200 feet wide flowed into the town of Goma 12 miles downstream, and then into nearby Lake Kivu. Inlets and pools formed by the lava flow are now literal rally boiling over while other parts of the lake are run fling over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

The eruption claimed this Goma cathedral, dislodging its bell, which is now stuck in the lava. Many ran for their lives as earthquake tremors continued a dozen times an hour. Others camped out overnight in the hills above Goma. Eventually, most of the town’s 300,000 residents fled eastward, to neighboring Rwanda. But almost everyone returned by yesterday, leaving the Rwandan camps virtually empty. On their way home, many walked over the hot coals on bare feet, only to see their city spit in two by a wall of lava.

The disaster displaced an estimated 90,000 people from their homes. Yesterday brought a manmade tragedy– an explosion at a gas station engulfed in lava. The blast killed 50 looters who were stealing fuel to sell on the streets. Meanwhile, local hospitals treated patients for burns on their feet and elsewhere, and there were at least three suspected cases of cholera. That’s a big fear for public health officials. They say the volcanic ash could have poisoned the main water source– the lake. Today, thousands lined up for food and water at this and other aid centers.

ELLEN ERICSON KRUPP, World Vision: The World Vision staff has been working since the morning to organize the community into groups to get them registered. So far, we have 15,000… More than 15,000 registered out of the 20,000. So that has gone well and now the food has arrived and is here, so we’re ready to distribute to the people.

RAY SUAREZ: The United Nations joined local groups in Goma today, as volcano experts said the natural crisis was over.

JACQUES DURIEUX, Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes: The phase of the active eruption we have had is finished, with no more sign of volcanic activity on the volcano. The volcano is quiet.

RAY SUAREZ: As part of the rebuilding, Goma residents today began pounding the lava smooth in preparation for a new road through town. Goma is no stranger to suffering. Eight years ago, more than a million ethnic Hutus streamed into the town from Rwanda to escape revenge for genocidal attacks carried out against their Tutsi countrymen. Many Hutus remain in Congolese refugee camps.

More recently, the eastern edge of the Congo has been under the control of rebels seeking to topple the government in far away Kinshasa. The result has been lawlessness in Goma and elsewhere, a situation only made worse by the latest natural crisis.