History museum

Pass the fastest lava in the world and rebuild Goma

The eruption destroyed six schools, leaving 20,000 students without access to education. UNICEF set up several school tents and resumed educational activities as soon as possible. The charity then rebuilt 30 classrooms. © Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi/UNICEF.

Mount Nyiragongo’s last eruption before 2021 was in 2002 and the effects were catastrophic.

Although the country’s mitigation system, the Goma Volcano Observatory, issued a warning days before the eruption, it went unheard as the country went through political turmoil at the time.

More than 140 people died, mostly from carbon dioxide suffocation, while hundreds of thousands lost their homes and fled to neighboring Rwanda. Two of the city’s four hospitals collapsed due to the ensuing earthquakes, and half the airport was covered in lava.

Many scientific papers were published as a result, with some warnings against rebuilding the city in the same location.

But the Democratic Republic of Congo is infamous for its production of precious metals and gemstones, and many Goma residents are employed as miners. Goma also serves as an important trade route for neighboring countries like Rwanda and Uganda, and other countries like China.

All warnings against rebuilding the city in one place were ignored and the city quadrupled in size after the 2002 eruption.

Adjusting to life on the edge of an active volcano

Goma has not always been a city in conflict. People lived there graciously for thousands of years – when access to their own resources allowed them to temporarily move if Mount Nyiragongo showed signs of erupting.

However, in recent centuries, Goma has been heavily exploited. Towards the end of the 19th century, Goma was subjected to the brutal 23-year rule of Belgian King Leopold II. The king made his fortune by collecting ivory and growing wild rubber using the locals as forced labor under threat of maiming and murder.

“Goma has been exploited many times throughout history and as a result poverty has increased and people can no longer afford to move around,” says Chaka. “The only time they move is when they are forced to, which is when the volcano erupts or there is a serious conflict. It is a reaction as opposed to a progressive movement.