The volcano in central Africa last swamped the city of Goma with lava in January 2002, leaving more than 100,000 people homeless and hundreds dead by some counts. Well over one million people live near the active crater, with Goma just a dozen miles south.
A DRC government spokesman, Patrick Muyaya, said Saturday that Goma’s evacuation plan had been activated, as the Associated Press reported that thousands were already fleeing, often on foot. A din of people and honking horns could be heard in videos of the red-glowing eruption shared on social media, and Rwandan officials said that more than 3,500 Congolese people had sought refuge across the border in nearby Rwanda.
As of today morning, it has been reported that over 7000 Congolese are returning home following last night’s incident.
Lava coursed onto a highway linking Goma with the city of Beni, according to the AP. Reuters said it was approaching an airport as the city grappled with power outages. Officials and experts gave mixed assessments on the threat the lava posted to Goma.
A United Nations peacekeeping mission in the area said that Goma seemed safe, though officials remained on “alert.”
“Current assessments indicate eruption doesn’t threaten the city itself,” the British embassy in the Congo echoed in a statement. Celestin Kasereka, who leads scientific research at the Goma Volcano Observatory, told reporters he also doubted lava could make it Goma.
But Dario Tedesco, a volcanologist in Goma, told Reuters that lava was flowing toward the city center after initially heading for Rwanda.
“Now Goma is the target,” Tedesco said. “It’s similar to 2002. … It might stop before or go on. It’s difficult to forecast.”
The U.N. mission MONUSCO tweeted that it was running reconnaissance flights and posted footage of a fiery landscape.
Congo President Félix Tshisekedi said he would cut his trip to Europe short to return home Sunday to coordinate aid.
Government spokesperson Muyaya said that the prime minister had called an emergency meeting and that authorities would set more plans in motion Sunday.
Muyaya urged people to avoid engaging with “everything that is being said in social media” in the face of an “extremely serious situation.” He vowed that officials would do their best to keep people updated and manage a crisis that “touches us all."
The AP said there were no immediate reports of casualties, as some residents complained of what they said was a delay in information. Dorcas Mbulayi told the Associated Press that she left home for Mount Goma as the volcanic activity began and faulted officials “for not informing us in time about the possible volcanic eruption.”
In one especially deadly eruption of Mount Nyiragongo in 1977, around 2,000 people were reported killed.
“This is the most dangerous volcano in the world!” volcanologist Dario Tedesco told Science magazine last year, suggesting another disaster could strike.
Video of Saturday’s new threat circulated widely. Charles Balagizi, a geochemist and geohazards researcher at Goma Volcano Observatory, posted footage of a towering cloud of smoke lit bright red against a dark sky, with the lights of buildings all around.
Posting another video later, Balagizi said a new “vent” — an opening from which the volcano erupts — had formed near Mujoga.