Kolkata, India: Powerful earthquakes from the Mount Nyiragongo volcano shook the eastern DR Congo city of Goma Tuesday, raising the death toll from the tragedy to 32 and threatening thousands of others.
Tremors were rocking the region every 10 to 15 minutes three days after Africa’s most active volcano erupted back to life, spilling lava that reached the fringes of the 1.5 million-person city.
Two big breaches popped up near the city’s main hospital and on a key highway near the airport, stretching up to several hundred meters (yards) in length and dozens of centimeters (about two feet) in width in some spots, causing concern among inhabitants who had only recently returned home after Saturday’s eruption.
“We don’t know what to do — we’re in a quandary, there are no instructions from the authorities, even though everything is moving,” said Goma resident Furaha Nyerere, visibly anxious.
“We’re terrified,” said Ishara Bashinenga, also of Goma. “If only they could tell us where to go, because we fear the worst.”
However, a government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that “the possibility of a full evacuation… has not been chosen yet,” and that supporting the victims remained the first priority for the time being.
The airports in Goma and Bukavu, which opened briefly on Monday before being ordered closed again on Tuesday, are both closed.
At least four buildings in Goma partially collapsed, including a three-story structure that critically injured eight people, according to authorities.
Over nearly a kilometer, a vast swath of hard, black lava blocked the road to Butembo, which is critical for bringing supplies to Goma (half a mile).
“We are all living in fear of a fresh eruption,” a local official from an international organization told AFP.
“The aftershocks are very intense. A lot of people slept outside… scared that their homes were going to collapse,” the official said.
Hundreds of aftershocks were reported across the neighboring border, including a 5.3 magnitude earthquake at 0903 GMT and a 4.6 magnitude tremor an hour earlier, according to the Rwanda Seismic Monitor.
Celestin Kasereka Mahinda, a Goma Vulcanology Institute official, said more damage might be predicted even when the earthquakes subside.
“The Earth ejected lava onto the surface (so) a void was created in the interior,” he said. “This void needs to be filled little by little to restore balance.”
He warned that the ash emanating from the volcano is “very toxic” and people must not use rainwater for “whatever reason, such as washing vegetables”.
Mount Nyiragongo is only 12 kilometers (approximately seven miles) from Goma, a city on the banks of Lake Kivu.
When the fire first erupted on Saturday evening, tens of thousands of inhabitants fled in fear, many of them to Rwanda.
At a height of 1,800 meters, two rivers of molten rock spilled from the volcano (5,900 feet).
One set out toward Goma, pausing only on the outskirts of the city.
Concerns about a new eruption
In its wake, it consumed homes, engulfing the region with stifling gas.
“Thirty-two people died in incidents linked to the eruption, including seven people killed by lava and five asphyxiated by gases,” the UN refugee agency UNHCR said in Geneva.
The previous death toll was 20, according to NGOs and other sources.
On Monday, five individuals perished of asphyxia after attempting to cross the cooling lava 13 kilometers north of Goma, according to civil society activist Mambo Kawada.
At least 150 children have been separated from their parents, according to UNICEF, and another 170 are missing.
Nyiragongo, a so-called stratovolcano that is about 3,500 meters (11,500 feet) tall, straddles the East African Rift tectonic division.
Its most recent significant eruption, in 2002, claimed the lives of roughly 100 people.
Concerns over water access
Raphael Tenaud, deputy head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation in Goma, told AFP that lava had destroyed four large communities and damaged 12 others in an interview with AFP.
According to him, humanitarian organizations estimate that between 900 and 2,500 homes were destroyed, resulting in 5,000 more homeless individuals.
Tenaud estimated that 25,000 people evacuated on Saturday and Sunday.
“Many of these displaced people have started to return to Goma, some have even come back to the site of the disaster, near the lava flow,” he said.
“Some are still displaced as they are afraid to come back,” he added.
According to Tenaud, damage to a reservoir has the potential to impair water supplies for nearly half a million people.
“The main problem will be… access to potable water and all the consequences that may stem from that,” he said.
Tenaud stated that the ICRC will resurrect a decommissioned pumping station to draw water, and that water will also be transported via tanker truck.
THIS STORY HAS BEEN UPDATED THROUGHOUT AND WRAPPED.