The government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has ordered the evacuation of Goma after the eruption of the Mount Nyiragongo volcano overlooking the eastern city of nearly 2 million people.
Even before the official announcement on Saturday, thousands of people had started filling the streets and carrying what they could as they headed out of the border city.
Nyiragongo’s last eruption, in 2002, killed 250 people and left 120,000 homeless. It is one of the world’s most active volcanoes and is considered among the most dangerous.
The communications minister, Patrick Muyaya, tweeted: “The evacuation plan for the city of Goma has been activated … The government is discussing the urgent measures to take at present.”
Muyaya added that the plan was activated after an emergency meeting of the government. Congolese president Felix Tshisekedi said he would be returning home from Europe on Sunday to help coordinate relief efforts.
There was no immediate word on any casualties, but witnesses said that lava already had engulfed one highway that connects Goma with the city of Beni in North Kivu province.
New fractures were opening in the volcano, letting lava flow south toward the city after initially flowing east toward Rwanda, said Dario Tedesco, a volcanologist based in Goma.
Reflection of the eruption in Lake Kivu, near the city of Goma. Photograph: Alex Miles/AFP/Getty Images
“Now Goma is the target,” Tedesco told Reuters. “It’s similar to 2002. I think that the lava is going towards the city centre. It might stop before or go on. It’s difficult to forecast.”
The exodus from the city began earlier on Saturday even before the Nyiragongo volcano erupted, spewing red fumes into the night sky.
Power was cut in large parts of the city and hundreds of residents began leaving their homes and heading towards the nearby border with Rwanda.
Rwandan immigration authorities reported that some 3,000 people already had officially crossed over from Congo to escape the volcano’s eruption, according to the national broadcaster.
The UN peacekeeping mission known as Monusco tweeted dramatic footage of the city, saying it was conducting reconnaissance flights over Goma, where it maintains a large base.
“The sky has turned red,” said one resident, Carine Mbala. “There is a smell of sulphur. In the distance you can see giant flames coming out of the mountain. But there has not been any earthquake.”
“People are leaving or preparing to leave,” another Goma resident said, as the streets began filling up, some people carrying as many of their belongings as they could.
“I am taking the children and getting into the car. There is a risk that the lava will flow on Goma,” another said.
“We are already in a total psychosis,” resident Zacharie Paluku told the Associated Press. “Everyone is afraid; people are running away. We really don’t know what to do.”
Some sought refuge aboard boats on Lake Kivu, while others fled to Mount Goma, the highest point in the metropolitan area. Dorcas Mbulayi left her home about an hour after the volcano first showed signs of erupting.
“We were eating when a friend of dad’s called him on the phone and told him to go and look outside,” said Mbulayi, who was still a child the last time the volcano erupted. “Dad told us that the volcano was erupting and that we were going to go to Mount Goma to escape the lava of the volcano.”
Goma residents leave the city after the eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano on May 22. Photograph: Guerchom Ndebo/AFP/Getty Images
She also blamed authorities “for not informing us in time about the possible volcanic eruption”.
The lack of immediate announcements from authorities and conflicting accounts circulating on social media only added to the sense of chaos in Goma.
Authorities at the Goma Volcano Observatory initially said it was the nearby Nyamulagira volcano that had erupted. The two volcanos are located about 13km (8.1 miles) apart.
Volcanologist Charles Balagizi said the observatory’s report was based on the direction in which the lava appeared to be flowing, which was toward Rwanda rather than Goma.
Goma sits along the border between Congo and neighboring Rwanda, and is a regional hub for many humanitarian agencies in the region.
The last time Nyiragongo erupted, on 17 January 2002, more than a hundred people were killed and almost all of the eastern part of Goma was covered with lava, including half of the airport’s landing strip. Hundreds of thousands fled the city.
The deadliest eruption of the 3,000-metre high volcano was in 1977, when more than 600 died.
Goma sits on the mountain’s southern flank and overlooks Lake Kivu. The Goma region, which lies in North Kivu province, bordering Rwanda and Uganda, has six volcanoes, all higher than 3,000 metres.
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