Tens of thousands of people are trying to escape the city of Goma, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), after authorities issued an evacuation order warning that the Mount Nyiragongo volcano could erupt again.
At least 31 people have died and 30,000 were forced to flee their homes when the volcano in the central African country first erupted over the weekend.
Since then, the area has experienced a series of earthquakes and tremors, some that were felt as far away as the Rwandan capital of Kigali, 65 miles from the volcano in the Virunga National Park.
Significant cracks in the ground – some stretching the entire width of the road, others in the walls of buildings – have begun to appear. A resident told CNN that some of his neighbors in high-rise buildings have fled their homes out of fear that they might collapse.
“The data from seismic activity indicates the presence of magma beneath the urban area of Goma and beneath the Kivu lake,” the military governor of North Kivu province, General Constant Ndima, said during a news conference on Thursday.
“Because of this data we cannot exclude another eruption on the earth or under the lake, this could arrive without any warning,” he added, urging people to follow the order and warning them to stay away from the lava. “You could die from asphyxiation or suffer serious burns,” he said.
Whole neighborhoods evacuated
Goma, the capital of the North Kivu province, is situated at the edge of Lake Kivu on the DRC’s border with Rwanda. According to official projections from the United Nations, World Bank and others, the city is home to approximately 670,000 people. However a number of nongovernmental organizations in the region say the population closer to 1 million.
Patrick Muyaya, a spokesperson for the DRC Ministry for Communication, said 10 Goma neighborhoods that were most at risk were being evacuated on Thursday. These included Majengo, Virunga and Murara.
Muyaya said during a news conference that the area was still facing a number of risks, including further earthquakes and the possibility of a secondary volcanic eruption.
The ashes emitted into the atmosphere are also dangerous to human health and Muyaya said that residents should be careful when purchasing fruit and vegetables because toxic volcanic dust may have settled on the goods.
There is also a risk of gas exploding from underneath a lake in the area.
“The return of evacuees to their homes cannot be envisaged until all threats are totally eliminated,” Muyaya said.
Provincial authorities have been working with the national police and armed forces to escort the evacuees, but the sudden exodus of people has caused major gridlock at the DRC-Rwanda border.
Muyaya said scientists still don’t have a clear picture of what is happening. The spokesman said the current observed activity is different from those recorded during previous eruptions.
He said the earth tremors following the eruption were unusual. “We’ve never seen this before, it’s very surprising,” he said.
However, he stressed that the latest scientific observations indicate the frequency and intensity of the earthquakes have reduced.
The lava lake the volcano appeared to have refilled on Sunday has since cleared, according to volcanologist Dario Tedesco.
The initial eruption destroyed at least 900 houses and flattened five schools, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). It damaged power and water supplies to the city. As of Wednesday, power had been partially restored, but water supplies were still cut, a spokesperson for the NRC told CNN.
A leading humanitarian organization, the NRC has said the DRC was suffering through “the world’s most neglected displacement crisis” as multiple conflicts forced 2 million people to flee their homes in 2020.
“A lethal combination of spiraling violence, record hunger levels and total neglect has ignited a mega-crisis that warrants a mega-response,” NRC Secretary General Jan Egeland in a statement. “But instead, millions of families on the brink of the abyss seem to be forgotten by the outside world and are left shut off from any support lifeline,” he added.
The NRC said that a third of the country’s population – 27 million people, including more than 3 million children – do not have enough food to feed themselves.
Bethlehem Feleke and Larry Madowo reported from Sake. Ivana Kottasová wrote and reported from London. Ingrid Formanek, Saskya Vandoorne, George Engels and Lindsay Isaac contributed reporting.