Apocalyptic scenes in the Congolese city of Goma as a volcanic eruption triggers earthquakes and fears of Lake Kivu methane explosions

Goma night
Goma residents are seen leaving the city on May 22, 2021. Guerchom Ndebo/AFP via Getty Images
  • Thousands in the Democratic Republic of Congo flee for safety after an eruption at Mount Nyiragongo.
  • Residents describe chaotic scenes, while officials say more eruptions, earthquakes are possible.
  • Dozens have died and over 1,000 children were separated from families as people fled for safety.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

It was around 4pm last Saturday, May 22, when Gédéon Batibonda Batubu noticed a frenetic scene outside of his medical clinic in Goma, the provincial capital in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

He looked out to see villagers from the foothills of Mount Nyiragongo, one of two active volcanoes just outside the city, carrying mattresses on their heads and large sacks with their belongings, children in tow. There was a forest fire, they said, and it was getting closer.

An hour later, the fiery glow had appeared in the sky and the foot-traffic, along with packed motos and cars, had picked up. Explosions could be seen in the distance.

“By 6pm, we realized it was a volcanic eruption,” Dr. Batibonda, who is 35, said in a phone interview. “People were running in both directions. They didn’t know where to run.”

Mount Nyiragongo was erupting, for the second time in less than 20 years, and was about to lay waste to one of the poorest and most vulnerable places on earth, a region with few roads and limited infrastructure, and a decades-long conflict that has displaced millions and is monitored by one of the largest U.N. peacekeeping operations in the world.

From there – with no immediate evacuation order, and unreliable information circulating person to person and over Whatsapp – a chaotic scene unfolded across Goma, a city of 2 million that’s on the edge of Rwanda and Lake Kivu, as tens of thousands rushed to safety. The only two remaining roads to exit the sprawling city – one leading east into Rwanda, and the other west towards Sake, a town 27km away – were jammed with traffic.

Goma women fleeing
Following the eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano on May 22, 2021, residents began fleeing Goma on foot. Guerchom Ndebo / AFP via Getty Images

Many vividly recalled Nyiragongo’s last eruption, in 2002, which claimed over 250 lives and razed a third of the city, leaving over 120,000 people homeless, and two meters of volcanic rock covering parts of Goma.

But while many chose to evacuate, others stayed – including Dr. Batibonda. “I will not leave or close the door,” he explained. “This is the moment when people have the most need for assistance, in one way or another and the little that we could deliver, we will.”

As of Wednesday, at least 37 people had died, either from exposure to the lava or gases, or in accidents while trying to evacuate, according to the government and U.N. officials. The number also included four prisoners who were shot while trying to escape.

According to the U.N. agency for children, UNICEF, 939 children that had been separated from their families had arrived at reunification centers. While many parents had been located, the parents of 243 children remained missing. In addition, as of Sunday, over 170 children were reported missing by their relatives.

Goma area covered
An aerial view shows debris engulfing buildings in Bushara village, near Goma, on May 23, 2021. Justin Katumwa/AFP via Getty Images

“A typical scenario would be where the parents are out working and the children are in the house,” explains Alastair Tancred, UNICEF Communications Officer. “They come home and they find that some of the children have fled. In another scenario, amid the chaos of the flight either to the Rwandan border or to Sake, there were big crowds of people moving quickly, so you can imagine it’d be very easy for a small child to get lost or separated.”

Meanwhile, according to the U.N., over 13 villages and 3,629 houses were destroyed, leaving over 20,000 people homeless.

Late Wednesday night – four days after the eruption began – Lieutenant General Constant Ndima Komgba, the military governor of North Kivu province, ordered a mandatory evacuation of 10 neighborhoods in central Goma – home to about 40 percent of the city – that were especially vulnerable to lava and plumes of lethal gas.

“The evacuation is mandatory,” he said in a statement broadcasted over the radio. “Stay out of the way of the lava flow, which represents the danger of dying by asphyxia or severe burns.”

Ndima’s update made clear the situation in Goma remains dangerous and unpredictable.

Goma volcano
The smoldering lava from the Mount Nyiragongo eruption is seen in Goma on May 23, 2021. Moses Sawasawa/AFP via Getty Images

Since the initial eruption on Saturday, there have been hundreds of earthquakes. By Tuesday morning, seismologists at Goma Volcanoes Observatory had reported 269 earthquakes. Multiple cracks had appeared in the ground, some extending for hundreds of meters and even splintering some of Goma’s main roads. An earthquake on Tuesday morning reached a magnitude of 5.2 on the Richter scale, toppling several buildings and homes.

There’s also the risk from Lake Kivu, which contains huge amounts of highly combustible methane gas and carbon dioxide. Lava could cause the methane to ignite, causing massive explosions at the surface of the lake, and a cloud of deadly carbon dioxide. In 1986, a similar eruption at Lake Nyos, in Cameroon, killed more than 1,700 people in a matter of minutes.

Additional eruptions are possible in Goma and in Lake Kivu, with little warning, Ndima said.

“I thank you, and may God protect us,” he concluded.

APOCALYPTIC SCENES AND A CHAOTIC EXIT

In telephone interviews with residents, local photojournalists and officials, people described a hellish scene unfolding over several days.

Image
Residents walk near destroyed homes after the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo volcano near Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, May 23, 2021. Djaffar Al Katanty/Reuters

By nightfall on Saturday, not long after he first saw the throngs of evacuees, Dr. Batibonda saw that the entire sky turned red over his clinic in Buhene, a neighborhood on the northern edge of Goma.

Several times per hour, the earth would shudder for one or two seconds; according to Rwanda’s Seismic Monitor, numerous earthquakes ranging between 2.8 and 4.1 in magnitude on the Richter scale were reported that night.

As the lava wiped out power lines, entire neighborhoods – including Buhene – lost phone signals, and a quarter of Goma’s inhabitants were left without electricity.

With no ambulance available, Dr. Batibonda called a motorcycle-taxi driver he knew personally, who helped to evacuate patients one by one until 1 AM, including two women who had given birth earlier that morning by C-section.

“There wasn’t any help from the state or from MONUSCO,” Dr. Batibonda added, referring to the U.N. peacekeeping mission.

A video circulating over Whatsapp, which was widely shared but could not immediately be authenticated, showed a thick flow of molten lava, oozing forcefully through Buhene, tearing down houses, setting wooden structures aflame, and bending and melting metal sheeting on rooftops and fences.

Meanwhile, much of the information that was released was confusing and unreliable, residents said.

Around 8:30 at night, the Goma Volcano Observatory said that the eruption had come from Mount Nyamulagira, the smaller of the two volcanos. This meant the lava was headed towards a relatively uninhabited part of Rwanda, and Goma was not under threat. But less than an hour later, the advisory was reversed: a second stream of lava was flowing towards Goma’s airport, the downtown area just adjacent to it, and Lake Kivu.

The message couldn’t reach those in Buhene where there was no phone signal.

Goma carry supplies
Residents are seen gathering in a busy street in Goma after an eruption from Mount Nyiragongo. Guerchom Ndebo /AFP via Getty Images

“It was around 9 or 10pm that a vehicle from the Department of Civil Protection passed with a megaphone, crying out, ‘People, evacuate! Evacuate! Hospitals, send the sick to the general hospital or the provincial hospital. Don’t stay! Leave! Leave!” recalls Dr. Batibonda.

His clinic was full. Over 30 new patients came in that evening, suffering from either injuries sustained in traffic accidents or respiratory problems. “One small child had lost oxygen but unfortunately, there was no electricity so I had no oxygenator,” he said. “I had to give him mouth-to-mouth to give him a bit of my oxygen. When he was a bit stabilized, I told him to go to the General Hospital. He was about six years old.”

At around 3 in the morning, the flow of lava stopped, just 15.24m from the front gate of Dr. Batibonda’s clinic in Buhene, and less that half of a mile from Goma’s airport and the city’s densely populated central neighborhoods. But the earthquakes continued, increasing in frequency and magnitude, he said.

Despite fears of a worsening situation, by Sunday evening, many of those who had fled had already returned to Goma. If the lava had spared their homes, abandoning them could leave them vulnerable to looters.

Moses Sawasawa, a local photographer, witnessed the scene of residents treading across partially-hardened lava to homes that somehow still jutted through to the surface, as they attempted to salvage what they could of their belongings. Burned, warped metal sheets lay strewn about, injuring several people. Seven people were reported to have died trying to cross to Kibumba town, on the other side of the lava. “If it rains, the gases rise, and can asphyxiate you,” Sawasawa said in a telephone interview. “You can collapse and burn to death.”

Goma wait for aid
Residents displaced by the Mount Nyiragongo volcanic eruption register to receive some aid distributed by a local politician and businessman in Goma. Guerchom Ndebo /AFP via Getty Images

For those who decided to hunker down, or who returned soon after, the situation remains precarious.

In Goma, One of the main distribution systems of clean drinking water that serves about 500,000 people, had been badly damaged, raising the risk of deadly waterborne illnesses.

Meanwhile, there were significant challenges bringing supplies into the city. The airport will be closed for at least 30 days. Lava blocked Goma’s main northbound road, cutting one of the principal supply lines for food and other assistance coming into the city, as well as to the eastern part of the country, which already has one of the largest and most neglected humanitarian crises in the world. “In this part of the country we’re trying to assist roughly 8 million people and this largely depends on the humanitarian hub being in Goma,” said Diego Zorrilla, UN Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator for the country.

In Goma, residents said that some food prices have already risen at local food markets.

By Thursday morning, it was reported that the U.N. was in the process of relocating 250 nonessential staff and 1200 of their dependents. Close to a million people began to evacuate, and the road to Sake was once again packed bumper to bumper, by people on motorbikes, on foot, and in cars, carrying as much of their belongings as they could.

As for Batubu, he said his family was in one of the neighborhoods that is now under the mandatory evacuation order and they’re facing the enormous blockade of traffic as they try to leave Goma. He is still trying to decide if he will stay at the clinic or join them.

In a voice message he left in the early hours of Thursday, he said that he had been feeling earthquake tremors throughout the night.

“There was one that happened as I’ve been recording this message,” he said.