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Nowhere to go Aid worker reveals terror as volcano eruption causes chaos for millions

Hundreds of thousands of people fled the city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo as Mount Nyiragongo erupted in anger two weeks ago


Countless homes on the slopes of Mount Nyirangongo

Countless homes on the slopes of Mount Nyirangongo

Countless homes on the slopes of Mount Nyirangongo

Marie d'Argentre recalls the screams and fear as a volcano spewed molten lava down on a city of two million people.

Hundreds of thousands of people fled the city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo as Mount Nyiragongo erupted in anger two weeks ago.

As Programme Director for Irish aid agency Concern Worldwide, her first priority was the safety of her staff.

"I'm usually in Goma," she told us, "on the Saturday night I was about five miles away and I could see the glow from the volcano and I could hear the panic in the streets as people fled."


Locals are returning to Goma

Locals are returning to Goma

Locals are returning to Goma

Speaking from Kigali, the capital city of neighbouring Rwanda, she said she was hopeful of being allowed back into the region this weekend as thousands of displaced people come to terms with losing everything.

"It was a strange thing, the older people who remember the last eruption in 2002 were not so worried but the younger people were terrified."

The region has been hit with 200 earthquakes since the eruption on May 23, and seismologists are worried that the build-up of lava which they believe has gathered under the city of Goma and below the bed of nearby inland sea Lake Kivu could spark a catastrophic second eruption.

Marie was one of five Concern staff who remained in Goma until advised to leave by the district governor.

"Our first concern was to make sure staff and their families were safe, now we're concentrated on getting back to Goma; there are thousands of displaced people."

Concern has been in the region since the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, when more than a million refugees fleeing the slaughter gathered in a huge camp in the shadow of the volcano.

The region remains riven with conflict with violent feudal insurrections going on coupled with raiding militia from neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda.

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"DRC has always ranked at the top of the UN's assessment of nations with the most internally displaced people, it is a region that has been forgotten," said Marie.

"If anything good is going to come out of this [eruption] it will be that international attention will be focused on the region again."

Miraculously, only an estimated 32 people have lost their lives but Goma, home to more than two million people, is sitting on a ticking time bomb. Fissures and cracks have opened on the city streets, sparking fears Nyiragongo is not finished.


Eruption devastated city

Eruption devastated city

Eruption devastated city


The worst case scenario is an eruption or earthquake beneath Lake Kivu, which divides Congo and Rwanda, which could release huge quantities of methane and carbon dioxide and could result in a huge death toll.

According to Marie, the additional worry is an outbreak of cholera because of disruption to water supplies and the potential of contamination because of seismic activity.

Goma's slums were already susceptible to the killer disease but last month's eruption destroyed electricity supply, left hospitals without power and crippled pumping stations.

"At the moment we can't get water to the city so the risk of cholera is very high," said Marie, who has been in the country for three years.

"I live here, I feel it," she said, "unless you experience it, it is very difficult to describe what it's like to live through a volcanic eruption or an earthquake.

"We're anxious to get back in because people are returning to destroyed homes and will be forced to live in shelters with no access to clean water and the risk of fresh eruptions."

The governor of Goma ordered the evacuation of the poorer areas of the city but is powerless to prevent people returning.

"The exodus was chaotic but so has been the return of thousands of people, and we have to think of the displaced population that was already in place," said Marie.

"The roads are rutted and broken which makes for chaos, we have a humanitarian crisis with upwards of 300,000 people with nowhere to stay, no facilities and no hygiene."

Because of the fear of fresh eruptions, the UN and NGOs have withdrawn staff, Goma's airport has been shut down and, with the lava flow stopping a few hundred yards from its boundary fence, it has been impossible to fly in supplies.

Concern oversaw two emergency and two development programmes in the region and is anxious to get back in the field.

"As soon as we get the green light we will be back," said Marie. "The region was way more unstable than it was three years ago so this kind of crisis doesn't help, but the people here have been so battered that they think it's just another problem."

For more information and if you want to support Concern's overseas programmes visit concern.net

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