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Joséphine Bahunga looked at the horizon with concern. The bustle of the streets, which in a few minutes were filled with people rushing away from their homes, increased their unease. Bahunga, a 48-year-old peasant woman, immediately understood that she too must leave her home. It happened on May 22. Shortly after sunset, the night sky over the city of Goma, in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, began to glow red. It was the warning of a disaster: an avalanche of lava was sliding from the slope of a 3,470-meter-high volcano – the Nyiragongo – in the direction of the city of Goma, inhabited by about 700,000 people.
PHOTO GALLERY | The Nyiragongo and the Lives on Pause
Bahunga gathered some essential items: clothing, metal saucepans, a handful of charcoal for cooking, an old photo album. Later, accompanied by four of her children, she walked 20 kilometers until she reached a safe place: the city of Sake. The road that connects both cities became a hive of people, cars and motorcycles trying to escape the fury of the Nyiragongo. About 416,000 people left their homes, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Bahunga has leather hands, scars on his face, a serious look: they are the marks of more than four decades working the fertile fields of the Masisi territory, also in eastern Congo. The Congolese war, which began in 1998, surprised her with a hoe on her shoulder. He resisted 19 years. In 2017, when the attacks by armed groups intensified in his village, he decided to flee to Goma.
Before the Nyiragongo eruption, the Congo was already the scene of one of the worst humanitarian crises on the planet, with more than five million internally displaced. In 2020, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), the Congolese war forced 6,000 people to leave their homes every day.
Nyiragongo is one of the most active and dangerous volcanoes in the world. Due to its geological composition, the magma that bubbles inside can travel at more than 40 miles per hour. The May 22 eruption stopped after the lava burned hundreds of houses. In addition, the authorities confirmed 32 deaths, as well as more than 140 earthquakes with magnitudes up to 4.8.
“Some displaced families are trying to return to their homes; sadly, many have discovered that their homes are destroyed by earthquakes or lava flows. In addition, they have found a city without water or electricity because the eruption has also damaged the reservoir that supplied Goma ”, reports the representative of the AVSI Foundation in the Congo, Nicolò Cercano.
With the collaboration of organizations such as the AVSI Foundation, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) It has set up several makeshift camps for internally displaced persons to house the Congolese who fled the volcanic activity of the Nyiragongo. The facilities of humanitarian organizations are so overcrowded that many must sleep in churches or schools, often sharing tiny spaces. Bahunga is one of them. Even if experts say a second eruption in the next few days is unlikely and thousands of people have returned to their homes in the last few days, the danger has not completely disappeared yet. Bahunga is now concerned with an invisible threat: recent tectonic movements could release huge amounts of carbon dioxide to the surface.
“I was just thinking about finding a safe place for my children”
A text message from her sister alarmed her: “Clara, it seems that the volcano is erupting.” It was seven in the afternoon. Clarice butsapu, a 28-year-old freelance photographer, was preparing to spend that night in a church. Scared, she went out into the street to gaze at the reddened sky. It was not the first time he had observed red clouds around the Nyiragongo’s dark silhouette. But then, the intensity of his color was much more intense than he had ever seen. Butsapu tried to stay calm. She and her family immediately decided to flee to the city of Sake, where they have remained until now.
“At Sake, conditions were deplorable,” Butsapu recalls. “The authorities did not establish mechanisms to receive displaced people. Many of them did not have access to water or food. In addition, the number of latrines were insufficient ”.
From the AVSI Foundation, Nicolò Cercano describes a similar scenario: “We are working in an apocalyptic environment. During their frantic flight, hundreds of children lost their family members. So we decided to focus above all on the protection of these children and on the distribution of food, water and personal hygiene equipment. We are also concerned with various diseases. Due to the crowded conditions, 40 cases of cholera have been registered ”.
Many displaced people are entirely dependent on humanitarian assistance because they left all their belongings in their homes. “I could only think of finding a safe place for my children,” says Generose Sivhwa, a 43-year-old grocer at a food market. “I did not have time to collect the objects from my house. In the streets there were people running in all directions. It was so scary that some women fainted. We did not know what to do”.
After escaping from Goma, Butsapu did not sit idly by. Before the assistance of international NGOs came, activists from citizen movements such as Lutte pour le Changement (FIGHT) or Rubber Actif, to which Butsapu belongs, decided to take action.
“The volunteers got together to decide what we could do. Together we decided that we should create a kind of community soup kitchen for the most needy children, “adds Butsapu.
In the city of Bukavu, where tens of thousands of people arrived, LUCHA activists also thought it was time to act. Although local authorities set up a camp for internally displaced persons, its facilities were insufficient. For this reason, many young people volunteered to disinfect the latrines, rehabilitate the most deteriorated dormitories, or distribute all kinds of basic products donated by the shopkeepers of the local markets.
Displaced people still do not know when they will be able to return to Goma or in what state they will find their homes, but Congolese activists have shown them that they are not alone.
“We have declared a non-violent war against the injustices of our country,” says Grâce Maroy, one of the LUCHA volunteers who worked in Bukavu. “We can solve our problems ourselves if we act together. As Congolese, we believe that the problems of our compatriots in Goma are also ours. Therefore, we could not ignore them ”.