How We Escaped a Terrifying Lava Flow!
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN THE CONGO (KINSHASA)
IT IS Tuesday, January 15, 2002—seemingly a normal day in Central Africa. Along with another one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I arrive in Goma, Kivu, Congo (Kinshasa), to meet with the Witnesses of the Great Lakes region.
Nothing to Worry About?
Although the Nyiragongo volcano (11,385 feet high [3,470 m]) is located 12 miles [19 km] from the city of Goma, its behavior intrigues us.* We can hear it rumbling, and we can also see smoke rising from the volcano. For the local people, this is not unusual at this time of the year, and they are not worried.
During the afternoon, we attend the meetings of two congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses. We continue to feel earth tremors and to hear rumbling. That does not seem to disturb anybody. The local authorities persist in reassuring the population that there is no cause for panic. Although a Congolese volcanologist has been predicting eruptions for months, nobody believes him. One friend comments casually, “This evening the sky will be red because of the active volcano.”
“We Must Flee Without Delay!”
Upon returning to our lodging, we are told with no uncertainty: “We must flee without delay!” The situation is perilous. The city is in great danger. How quickly things change! Earlier we had been discussing the prospect of using Goma as a central location for witnessing activities. Now, late in the afternoon, we are told to flee the city, as it is in danger of annihilation!
As night closes in, the sky turns fire-red—for good reason! The flow of lava from Nyiragongo is advancing toward the city. The mountain resembles an enormous boiling pot spilling out its contents, fiery molten lava devastating everything in its path. We have never packed our suitcases faster! It is close to 7:00 p.m.
Thousands Fleeing on the Road
As we make haste, the road leading out of Goma is filled with masses of people fleeing for their lives. Most are walking, carrying the belongings they have been able to grab. Many have loads balanced on their head. A few are jammed into overloaded vehicles. All are on their way to the nearby Rwandan border. However, a volcano is no respecter of man-made boundaries. No army can impede its progress! We see soldiers surrender to the lava as they too run for their lives. It is virtually impossible for cars to advance on the road. We must continue on foot. We are in the midst of this struggling mass of 300,000 people—men, women, children, and babies—fleeing from the wrath of the volcano. The earth beneath our feet continues to rumble and tremble.
Everyone is fleeing for his life. My friend and I, strangers from a big city, are in their midst, accompanied by a few Witnesses, who watch over us. Their presence and their deep concern touch us deeply and give us a sense of security in this very stressful and painful situation. People are fleeing with what they can carry—clothes, pots and pans, some meager food supplies. In this sea of humanity, people are jostling one another. Some of them are bumped by cars trying to get past, causing some to lose their grip on their few belongings, which fall and are trampled. Woe to the one that stumbles. Tension is high. Everyone is filled with fear. We are trying to make our way to Gisenyi, just a few miles away in Rwanda. We continue our forced march.
A Night in Security
We reach an inn, but, of course, there is no more lodging available. We have to content ourselves with sitting around a garden table. This is after a tiring three-and-a-half-hour walk. We are glad to be alive and out of danger and to be with our Christian brothers who made the trip with us. Happily, among the Witnesses, no lives were lost.
It is evident that we will have to spend the night outdoors. From this safe distance, we can contemplate the fiery-red sky over the city of Goma. It was very impressive and beautiful indeed! Daylight comes slowly. The rumbling and quaking have continued through the night. Looking back on the past day’s difficult events, we cannot help but feel compassion for the thousands of families that had to flee with their young ones.
Help Comes Quickly
Witnesses from Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, join us at midday on Friday, January 18. A relief committee made up of brothers from Goma and Gisenyi goes into action. The first goal is to house the Witness refugees in the six Kingdom Halls located in the vicinity. This is done the very same day. A sign in French and Swahili is put up on the roadside, indicating the way to a local Kingdom Hall, where the refugees can be given assistance and find comfort. Also the same day, three tons of basic necessities arrive at the Kingdom Halls where the Witnesses are housed. Saturday, the following day, a truck loaded with food, blankets, plastic sheets, soap, and medication arrives from Kigali.
This is a time of deep concern. How can the needs of all these people be met? What about the volcano? When will the eruption cease? To what extent has the city of Goma suffered destruction? The news filtering through and the continuing earth tremors do not promise anything positive. It is feared by experts that dangerous levels of sulfur dioxide will pollute the atmosphere. There is also concern that the water in Lake Kivu will be contaminated as a result of chemical reactions.
Within the 48 hours that followed the eruption, disturbing reports had spread. Then, Saturday afternoon we learn that some 10,000 people, including 8 Witnesses together with a child, are trapped by lava that encircles them, six feet [2 m] deep in some areas. The air is heavy with toxic gases. We fear for their lives. Things look hopeless. Even Goma’s cathedral has been virtually destroyed by the inexorable advance of the lava. No one at the time thinks that Goma will arise from the ashes.
Some Comforting News
Sunday at 9:00 a.m., we receive a phone call from one of the brothers surrounded by the lava. He tells us that the situation is changing. There is improvement. Rain is falling, the lava is cooling off, and the atmosphere is clearing. Although the lava is still hot and dangerous, people are beginning to cross the flows to get to safer ground. The city is not completely destroyed.
This is the first good news since the cataclysmic events began. The volcano seems less active. The experts in the vicinity offer conflicting views. We are able to establish contact with the neighboring city of Bukavu, located at the other extremity of Lake Kivu. We learn that five families, as well as three children without their parents, reached Bukavu by boat. The Witnesses in the city will take care of them.
We Can Return!
On Monday, January 21, we are able to encourage and console the victims in Gisenyi, as well as determine their needs. We find that the brothers who are housed temporarily at the six Kingdom Halls are getting organized. We are able to get an exact count of the number who fled—1,800 including children.
What about the future? The local authorities plan to set up camps for the refugees quickly. However, some people still have unpleasant memories of the refugee camps that were set up after the genocide in 1994. We decide to return to Goma, and toward noon we reach the city. About 25 percent of it has been ravaged. We are able to walk on the now-hardening lava that flowed down the city streets. It is still warm, and escaping gases permeate the atmosphere. Many people are determined to return to the city.
At 1:00 p.m., we meet with 33 Christian elders in the Kingdom Hall of the Goma Center Congregation. The opinion is unanimous: They decide to return to Goma. “This is where we belong,” they say. What about the risk of the volcano erupting again? “We are used to it,” is the reply. They fear that if they do not return soon, everything they own will be looted. The following day all the Witness families that fled are back in Goma. The vast majority of the 300,000 people who had crossed the border have also returned to the stricken city.
One Week Later
The city is once again alive with activity. Evidently, it will not die. Soon work is started to level the lava sufficiently to permit the two sections of the city that had been divided to be reunited. Everything that was in the path of the lava was devastated. The commercial center and the administrative section of the city were ruined. It is estimated that one third of the airport runway was destroyed.
An accurate count shows that 180 Witness families are among those who lost everything and are homeless. The relief committee makes arrangements to help approximately 5,000 men, women, and children to receive daily rations of food. A shipment of plastic tarpaulins contributed by Jehovah’s Witnesses in Belgium, France, and Switzerland will be used for temporary shelter for the homeless, as well as for meeting places for the congregations whose Kingdom Halls were severely damaged or destroyed. Some of the homeless families will stay with Witnesses whose homes are intact, whereas others will be housed in the temporary shelters.
On Friday, January 25, some ten days after that terrible night, 1,846 are present at a meeting held in a school yard in Goma to listen to encouraging words from the Scriptures. Numerous expressions of gratitude are made by the brothers for the comfort as well as the practical assistance provided by Jehovah through his organization. We visitors are deeply touched by the courage and strong faith exhibited by the brothers despite their dire circumstances. Amid such distress, how pleasant it is to be part of a brotherhood united in the worship of the true God, Jehovah, the Source of everlasting comfort!—Psalm 133:1; 2 Corinthians 1:3-7.
In Swahili the volcano is known as mulima ya moto, meaning “mountain of fire.”—See the article “Visiting an Active Volcano” in Awake! of July 8, 1975.
[Maps on page 22, 23]
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Lines with arrowhead indicate the lava flow
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Goma Airport ↓ ↓
[Pictures on page 23]
The molten lava forced tens of thousands of residents to flee the city of Goma
AP Photo/Sayyid Azim
[Pictures on page 24, 25]
Within a week the Witnesses organized their Christian meetings