Goma, Congo, partially evacuated due to fears of volcanic eruption [Video] –

Goma, Congo, partially evacuated due to fears of volcanic eruption [Video] – fr

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GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo – Tens of thousands blocked highways, crowded with boats, and left on foot to flee this large African city on Wednesday, seeking to escape the roaring threat of Mount Nyiragongo, one of the most active and dangerous in the volcanoes world.

After a fire crack opened on Saturday, sending a torrent of lava rolling down the rocky slopes of the mountain towards Goma and killing more than two dozen people, scientists and local officials warned the danger was over. not passed.

On Wednesday night, they ordered the evacuation of a million people, even as a constant series of minor tremors and earthquakes rocked the city.

Just 2.5 miles below the unstable ground, scientists detected a flow of magma, a lake of fire just below the city, and the fear was that tectonic activity could trigger another eruption.

A new crack could open at any time, said Benoît Smets, a geological hazard expert at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, who is part of an international team working to help the Volcano Observatory. of Goma, the only monitoring station in the region.

“We have a very active volcano with a very dense and populated city at the foot of the volcano, so there is a huge risk of disaster,” he said in a telephone interview.

What made Saturday’s eruption different from two past eruptions, the most recent in 2002, is that it happened without warning, he said.

By the time the people of Goma and the surrounding towns and villages knew they were in danger, the sky was already on fire. For more than five hours, the night sky burned a crimson red as lava flowed from the flanks of Mount Nyiragongo.

By morning, the lava flow had destroyed 17 communities in its path, according to relief agencies.

The UN refugee agency, citing local authorities, said 32 people had died in incidents related to the eruption, including seven people killed by the lava flows and five suffocated by gas.

The lava stopped just before downtown and almost reached the airport.

Since the eruption, the volcano’s lava basin has rapidly filled, and scientists have rushed to figure out what is going on beneath the earth’s surface.

The 2002 eruption destroyed around 20% of Goma, burying it under molten rock, leaving 120,000 people homeless and killing around 250 people through carbon dioxide asphyxiation, burns and an explosion triggered by lava from a gas station.

Since then, the number of people living in the shadow of the 11,385-foot-high volcano has more than doubled, to around 1.5 million to two million.

The country’s unstable political situation, rocked for decades by civil wars, ethnic conflicts and systemic corruption, has complicated efforts to study the volcano. The World Bank withdrew its funding for the Goma research center, fearing the money could be misappropriated.

In 2020, a team of volcanologists had to be airlifted to the region by United Nations peacekeepers who protected scientists from armed rebels in the region.

Dario Tedesco, a volcanologist at Luigi Vanvitelli University in Campania, Sicily, was on this mission and he told Science magazine that he and his colleagues found the lava lake filling up at an alarming rate.

“It is the most dangerous volcano in the world,” he said shortly after this trip.

Located on the tectonic divide known as the East African Rift, east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo near the border with Rwanda, it is less than 13 km from the center of Goma, which is on the shores of Lake Kivu.

While it’s not clear whether the latest eruption and seismic activity will trigger a more deadly disaster, officials in the central African country have decided the risk is too great not to act.

“The situation can change quickly,” the military governor of the province, Lieutenant-General Constant Ndima, told the audience. “In anticipation of this possible disaster and in agreement with scientists and volcanologists, we have taken the decision to relocate the population” of 10 of the 18 districts of the city.

No less than a million people reside in these districts, but it was unclear how many of them heeded the government’s warning.

Adolphe Basengezi, a taxi driver who lives in Goma, said there were not many people left in his neighborhood.

“Most of them have fled,” he says. “I was driving and people on the road were panicking and trying to save their lives.”

Many of the city’s wealthiest people, those who can afford cars, rushed east and into Rwanda. More than 3,000 people had crossed the border by 9:30 am, according to an official at the checkpoint.

Others flocked to the port on Lake Kivu, hoping to escape by ferry. Witnesses reported seeing at least two boats so overwhelmed by people that they were broken and had to be abandoned.

Another threat, however, was the lake itself.

Stretching about 1,600 miles and about 1,500 feet deep in parts, the lake was shaped by the same geological forces that gave rise to Mount Nyiragongo and seven other volcanoes known as the Virunga Range.

Over the years, volcanic activity has led to a steady build-up of carbon dioxide and methane at the bottom of the lake.

“Because this lake is very deep, this layer doesn’t mix with the rest,” Smets said. The fear is that if the lake bed is destabilized by something like an earthquake and then exposed to superheated lava, it could cause the gas to be released – with fatal consequences for anyone caught in the suffocating cloud.

“At the moment,” said Mr Smets, “what is reassuring is that there is no sign of disturbance in the lake. “

The most pressing concern was the danger of magma moving under the ground and accumulating in the volcano.

Patrick Muyaya, the country’s communications minister, said that at present “scientists don’t have a clear answer to what’s going on.”

“Goma faces four types of risks: the accentuation of earthquakes, a new volcanic eruption, the explosion of gas pockets under the lake and the toxicity of the surrounding environment,” he said. of a press conference on Wednesday.

“Faced with this specter of dangers and, pending the results of the surveillance and the overall analysis of the situation, the only option has been to protect human lives and protect the population from harm. . “

With the evacuation decree issued in the middle of the night, many of those who took to the road to escape also expressed confusion.

The largest crowds of people fled on foot – carrying their valuables slung over their shoulders and mattresses strapped to their backs. All morning and afternoon a mass of humanity marched west towards the town of Sake more than 12 miles away.

“All the roads out of town are completely full,” said Mr. Basengezi, the taxi driver. “People don’t have clear information.”

He said all of Sake’s hotels were full by late afternoon and people kept arriving.

But not everyone is gone. Some, like Albert Muihigi, 28, couldn’t. His mother has diabetes and he had to stay and take care of her.

“Most of those who have left are women and children,” he said. “A lot of young men have stayed behind to take care of our homes because there are no police around. “

He said he was not afraid but there was an atmosphere of fear in the air.

“We’re young enough that if something happens we can run for it,” he said.

Finbarr O’Reilly reported from Goma and Marc Santora from London. Steve Wembi contributed reporting from Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.

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