Paul Bapolosi will never forget how shocked he was when he saw red hot lava pouring down Mount Nyiragongo, which overlooks the city of Goma in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Paralysed from the waist down and wheelchair-bound since he was a child, Paul, 48, had to be pushed to safety by his wife and children. They joined tens of thousands of people who escaped when the volcano erupted unexpectedly on 22 May.
“Without my family, I don’t know if I would have been able to flee. I am lucky to be alive and so proud we all made it to safety together,” says Paul.
His wife and children pushed him all night, for over twelve gruelling hours to Sake, a town 25 kilometres west of Goma.
“I am lucky to be alive.”
“The road was bumpy and long and our children were so tired. It was not easy at all,” recalls his wife, Francine.
Paul’s family found shelter in a school hosting 300 displaced people, including over 100 people with reduced mobility. Some, like Paul, fled in wheelchairs, while others walked on crutches or used simple canes.
As the lava begins to cool, the government is encouraging people to return to their homes, but many say they have lost all their property and need assistance to rebuild their lives. Others, like Paul, do not know whether the homes they left behind will still be available.
“I didn’t have my own home so I don’t know if my landlord will be there when we return or if he will have given out our house to another tenant,” says Paul.
Mount Nyiragongo is one of the world’s most active and deadly volcanos. Over 170 people were killed when it last erupted in 2002 and the lava spread to many neighbourhoods, destroying property and homes.
Authorities in Goma report that 32 people died in the May eruption and at least 4,000 houses were destroyed by the lava and extreme heat. No one, including volcano experts, had predicted the eruption. It came as the North Kivu region, where Goma is located, is struggling with decades of ongoing conflict and violence that has displaced more than 2 million people.
More than 450,000 people fled Goma in the days following the eruption, as the city continued to be hit by over a thousand tremors, raising fears of another eruption. Some 120,000 people fled to Sake town alone while others continued to Minova and Bukavu further south, or northwards to Kiwanja in Rutshuru Territory.
Around 8,000 people also crossed the border into Rwanda, which lies east of Goma. Most of them have since returned to the DRC.
Julienne Bushashire, 50, undertook a similarly arduous journey. She walked all the way to Sake with her ten children, in pain throughout due to a condition that means she can only walk with the aid of a stick. She also found shelter in the school.
“I have nothing left.”
“I had to stop to rest many times as my legs hurt. We slept by the roadside in the open when we were too tired to continue,” she explains, adding that the roads out of Goma were full of panicked people.
Julienne lost everything when she fled to Goma in 2007 after her home village in Masisi was attacked by armed militia. She had to start over and now, the volcano has taken what little she had.
“I have been told that my house in Goma was looted. I have nothing left,” she adds.
With no running water or electricity, dozens of families are staying in classrooms without any facilities, hygiene or comfort.
Some 350,000 people are estimated to be in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency’s priority is to vacate schools and ensure a sense of normalcy resumes, particularly for children, as soon as possible.
“Children who fled the volcano and are now displaced are really traumatized. It is crucial that they return to their regular routines and for their parents to be able to resume their daily activities,” explains Liz Ahua, UNHCR’s representative in the DRC. “This can help reduce the children’s trauma.”
UNHCR has assisted the displaced with core relief items including soap, blankets, solar lamps and hygiene kits. Communal shelters have also been built in Sake and Minova to decongest schools and churches.
“We had to relocate our staff to Sake and Bukavu where they immediately began assisting the most vulnerable people there,” adds UNHCR’s Ahua, explaining that days after the disaster, emergency teams were in place in various towns, including Sake, Minova, Kiwanja, Masisi, Kitshanga and Bukavu.
But more effort is required to prepare displaced families who are ready to return and rebuild.
Esperance and her husband Jean stand on lava rocks that have piled up on the spot where their house once stood in Mugerwa, one of the neighbourhoods that was almost entirely wiped out. The rocks are still warm but the couple is ready to start over.
“We are used to the volcano, it is like our neighbour,” says Jean. “But we need a piece of land to rebuild our home.”