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Under the volcano

07-02-2002

   

   

   

   

   

 

The lava of Mount Nyiragongo has left an indelible scar on Goma. In the evening of 17 January, a broad river of molten rock ate its way through the city's commercial centre, sweeping away shops, warehouses, schools, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of homes in a surge of fire. Explosions rocked the night as the lava engulfed fuel depots and petrol stations in the burning city. According to the ICRC head of mission, Walter Stocker, who fled Goma together with his team in a small boat, " The fires were so bright that you could have read a newspaper in the boat on Lake Kivu. I thought there would be nothing left of the city " .

The same evening, Goma's population fled in droves, mostly towards the Rwandan city of Gisenyi, a few kilometres to the east. Humanitarian organizations and journalists anticipated a major crisis, with hundreds of thousands of people seeking refuge across the border. However, Goma's inhabitants had other plans. Hardened by the experience of years of civil war, mass refugee movements and previous volcanic eruptions, they decided to return home, determined to rebuild their shattered city despite the risks posed by the still hot lava and frequent earth tremors in the wake of the eruption.

Like the rest of Goma, the Red Cross in the city was not spared the destruction wrought by Mount Nyiragongo. Many ICRC and Red Cross workers lost their homes, and the ICRC's warehouse and garage, containing supplies worth about a million Swiss francs, were turned into a tangle of twisted metal covered by a layer of lava up to two metres thick. " When we heard the sound of the lava approaching there were o nly two drivers and myself " , remembers ICRC warehouse manager Damas Migabo. " I gave them the keys to two trucks and I fled in a Toyota Landcruiser. The other seven trucks we lost, together with tons of food, thousands of blankets and other items " .
 

Over the next days the Red Cross swung into action, evaluating the situation in Goma and taking the first steps to deal with the emergency. The ICRC focused on the city's water needs, working with the local water company, Regideso, to repair pumping stations and water pipes and installing public water tanks for the population. The medical team distributed basic drugs to five health centres and the general hospital. Meanwhile, the ICRC and the local Red Cross began the essential task of reuniting hundreds of family members separated during the chaos following the eruption.

 Lost children  

Day six after the eruption - At the Provincial Headquarters of the Red Cross Society of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Goma, a throng of volunteers is preparing for the day's activities. Meanwhile, in a small wooden hut at the back of the building, two Red Cross volunteers are serving breakfast to 25 children, some of them so small they need to be carefully spoon-fed with their maize porridge. Additional children are still being brought in, while others are picked up by their overjoyed parents.

Janvier Butu Muhima has come here in search of his five-year-old daughter Lucie, lost during the mass escape to Rwanda. Today, after more than a week of uncertainty and anguish, the Red Cross has good news for Janvier: Lucie has been found by volunteers at one of the ten contact points for separated families set up throughout Goma. " I was worried I would never find her " , says the 30-year- old father of four. " Now I am happy. The Red C ross has taken good care of her. " Lucie tells her father how she lost her mother and three siblings during the frantic escape across the border. The crying child was found and taken in by a Rwandan family in Gisenyi before being picked up by a Congolese man who took her to the Red Cross in Goma.

Lucie is one of about 400 separated children the Congolese and Rwandan Red Cross Societies registered in the wake of the eruption. Information on the children was centralized by the ICRC and shared with other organizations involved in family tracing. The children's names were then posted at public places across Goma and Gisenyi and broadcast on local radio. Family tracing requires infinite patience and painstaking attention to detail but, according to Ngoy Katenda, a Congolese Red Cross volunteer caring for the children, it certainly has its moments: " It makes me happy to see the parents with their children because it shows that our work here is really producing results " .

 Looking ahead...  

Day nine after the eruption - United Nations organizations and NGOs have begun distributing basic food and non-food assistance to more than 50,000 families in Goma. Many of the families made homeless by the lava have found temporary shelter in churches and institutions such as the Goma Technical Institute, where hundreds of people are occupying 16 classrooms. The big school yard outside, overshadowed by trees, is bustling with activity: vendors are selling maize meal and vegetables, women are cooking and washing clothes, and dozens of people are waiting their turn at a food distribution point. Jean-Paul Dimandja of the ICRC has come here with about 15 Red Cross volunteers to clean the site. " For the moment this place is OK " , says Jean-Paul. " People have nowhere else to go. At least here they have a roof over their heads. " However, the rubbish strewn everywhere worries him. During a meeting with camp representatives he points out the health risks and explains that the volunteers are there to deal with the problem. Outside, the Red Crossers, equipped with rubber gloves, start digging a hole to bury a heap of stinking garbage.

Sites like the Technical Institute can only offer a short-term solution for families seeking shelter, especially those from parts of Goma almost entirely buried by the lava. In the aftermath of the emergency phase, the Red Cross faced the challenge of addressing the specific needs of homeless families. A preliminary count by Congolese Red Cross volunteers shows that about 13,000 families in Goma - at least 90,000 people - are living at temporary sites or with friends and relatives, a huge problem in a notoriously overcrowded city. National Red Cross Societies from across Europe have sent planes carrying tons of plastic sheeting, blankets, soap and other items to help.

Now, the Federation and the ICRC are deciding how this assistance can best be channelled to the most needy. According to Nadine Bagué, an ICRC relief expert from Geneva who is here to reinforce the Goma team, " the idea is to provide an assistance package which can be used on the spot in Goma but which is light enough to allow people to transport it if they want to move " .

It will take months for life in Goma to return to normal. Many businesses, health centres and schools can probably never be rebuilt; some people may choose to move elsewhere while others try to rebuild their homes and live under the shadow of the volcano, which remains a threat whose unpredictability baffles the experts. Most of the international media have now left Goma, and the public gaze of an increasingly globalized world has turned elsewhere. For the Red Cross, however, work here is far from over.

 Florian Westphal, ICRC information delegate based in Nairobi