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The World

Congo Struggles in Aftermath of Volcanic Blast

Disaster: Many of the 500,000 refugees search for missing relatives. At least 16 deaths are reported, but an accurate count could take weeks.

January 20, 2002|DAVAN MAHARAJ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GOMA, Congo — With a mattress on her head and three young children at her side, Anifa Asani was on a mission Saturday to find lost loved ones. She had not seen her two older daughters and two other sons since Thursday, when the 11,380-foot Mt. Nyiragongo volcano erupted, devastating this city on the shores of Lake Kivu.

The volcano, which still emitted an ominous orange glow, gave Gomans a brief respite Saturday. Many of the 500,000 people displaced by the eruption took the opportunity to count their dead and injured, find missing friends and relatives, and ponder what was next for them. But by late in the day, Asani's search had come up empty.

"I've looked everywhere but inside that volcano," she said as she rested with her brood under a bushy cypress. "But I can't give up now."

Hospital officials in the neighboring hamlet of Gisenyi, Rwanda--where about 350,000 refugees had gathered--confirmed that at least 16 people had died from severe burns caused by the eruption. But U.N. officials said it could take weeks before they know exactly how many people have perished.

Hundreds of people were killed by fast-flowing lava in 1977, the last time Nyiragongo poured its wrath on Goma. Some local residents believe that evil spirits inhabit the volcano.

On Saturday, workers from the U.N. World Food Program began distributing high-energy biscuits and water to thousands of refugees in Ruhengeri, a Rwandan town an hour's drive from the Congolese border.

The area has views of stunning green mountains cascading to the aqua waters of Lake Kivu. Saturday, a number of homeless Gomans were gathered around the lake for a meager, unwanted picnic.

Meanwhile, many people who had fled the volcano complained openly that they had not received any food, water or clothing. Some said they felt abandoned by the international community. Even as thousands of Gomans crossed into Rwanda to escape Nyiragongo, many others made the opposite journey, saying they felt safer and more comfortable in their Congolese villages.

"I spent the last two days in Rwanda, and no one offered me a drop of water, food--nothing," said 27-year-old Furaha Mwulengezi, who crossed back into Goma with her 1-month-old daughter, Sarah, strapped to her back.

"Rwanda is a poor country with too many people," said another refugee who was waiting in Gisenyi for a wooden vessel to take him to a Congolese town a three-hour boat ride across Lake Kivu. "Congo is almost as big as a continent. Why would I want to suffer in a small country?"

U.N. officials acknowledge that they face a difficult task in addressing the latest humanitarian crisis in Congo.

"I think you're looking at vulnerable people in the short term, but even for the long term, Goma is destroyed," said Judith Lewis, regional director for the World Food Program. "It's going to take time to relocate these people to help them get started again."

Many Gomans returned home Saturday only to get a firsthand look at the devastation. Homes and buildings near the city center were still smoldering. Hot lava flowed slowly into Lake Kivu, creating instant geysers and clouds of steam that made the lake look on fire.

At the Goma airport, some jets were marooned amid 6-foot-high piles of crusted lava. Across the street from the airport, U.N. officials reported that their warehouse had been looted by Rwandan-backed rebel soldiers who a few years ago seized control of this eastern Congolese community from government forces.

"Just take a look at this," said a Senegalese soldier, pointing to a bank of vandalized computers and office furniture. "This was not done by the volcano."

According to witnesses, the rebel soldiers shot and killed at least one looter and fired live ammunition at people who broke into homes and stores in daylight. Some looters walked on still-smoldering lava to get to their targets, the witnesses said.

It took a small battalion of rebel soldiers to keep looters away from a dry goods store run by Indian businessman Nilech Thakkar.

"This town is finished," Thakkar said as his workmen loaded bags of sugar, flour and salt to take to Gisenyi for safekeeping.

But for many Gomans, no place seemed safe. As they prepared to spend a third night sleeping along the sides of the road, the earth trembled violently at frequent intervals--signs that lava was moving up the crater and that Nyiragongo was still alive.

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