Sunday, 4th June 2023

Exodus from DR Congo volcano city prompts fears of looting

Fears of looting are gripping the eastern DR Congo city of Goma, whose inhabitants fled last week after warnings that the dreaded Mount Nyiragongo volcano could be on the verge of a catastrophic second eruption.

This aerial photo taken on May 30, 2021 shows the crater of the active Nyamuragira volcano, close to the Nyiragongo volcano, north of Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu. The Nyiragongo, Africa’s most active volcano, located in the Virunga National Park, erupted on May 22, 2021, killing 32 people and sweeping away the electricity facilities. The possibility of a second eruption in the coming days is not ruled out by scientists on the ground. – (Photo by ALEXIS HUGUET / AFP)

Fears of looting are gripping the eastern DR Congo city of Goma, whose inhabitants fled last week after warnings that the dreaded Mount Nyiragongo volcano could be on the verge of a catastrophic second eruption.

Holdouts have reported cases of homes and stores being looted after the exodus, although the phenomenon seems less widespread than when Nyiragongo last kicked into life 19 years ago.

Around two-thirds of Goma’s population of 600,000 fled, many of them heading to Sake, around 25 kilometres (15 miles) to the west, or the adjoining Rwandan border town of Gisenyi to the east.

“There were burglaries overnight,” said Augustin Kambale, an inhabitant of Buehene, a district in northern Goma where a laval flow from Nyiragongo came to halt on May 23, less than a day after the volcano awoke.

“Thieves got into our place. They broke down the door and the window. They looted the television, tables, everything,” he said.

“We came home and found just a few clothes still lying on the floor,” Kambale said.

“The same thing happened opposite us — a store was completely looted.”

In Mapendo, a district abutting the Rwandan border, local youth leader George Rwagaza said “there’s been no lack of isolated burglaries, although we haven’t noted any major losses.”

He added that thanks to stepped-up patrols by security forces, “there is a certain sense of security”.

Goma lies just a dozen kilometres (nine miles) from Nyiragongo, Africa’s most active and most-feared volcano.

When it erupted in 2002, lava flowed like a river across the city before ending in Lake Kivu.

Looting during that eruption was widespread, and of the 100 or so people who died during the episode, many were killed during pillaging.

Police officials reached by AFP refused to give details other than to say that security forces had been deployed.

The military governor, General Constant Ndima, gave the evacuation order last Wednesday.

He pointed to fears of a potentially disastrous eruption under Lake Kivu.

Ndima insisted that evacuated districts would be “secured” by troops and police.

Thirty-two people died from lava burns or asphyxiation after the volcano’s May 23 outburst, and two more died in accidents during the exodus.

Residents in Buhene, Bujumbu and Murara districts said the police presence there was sketchy during the day and at night.

In some areas, citizens have organised their own surveillance.

“Some young people have been staying behind in homes. People fled but they’ve left someone to keep an eye on property, which explains why there have been fewer burglaries than in 2002,” a local leader said.

“The crime rate in Goma is relatively high in normal times and there has been looting in the last few days,” said a senior official with an NGO.

“But local people have got together to have young people stay behind to keep an eye out.”

“The situation is critical in some areas,” said a young man in the Trois Lampes district, tending to his ageing mother who refused to leave her home.

“You see people you don’t know going around among the empty houses. I go on patrol with friends, with machetes and knives. When police meet us at night, they give us a word of encouragement.”

Plaice Nzilamba, a civil society leader in North Kivu province, warned of the risk of vigilante justice.

“Brigades of young people have sprung up to apprehend criminals,” he said. “But unfortunately, some of them have been finishing off the thieves they catch.”

Troops with MONUSCO, the UN’s peacekeeping mission in the DRC, are helping out by staging joint patrols with national security forces, MONUSCO’s bureau chief in Goma, Omar Aboud, told AFP.

Nighttime security worries have been heightened by lack of electricity — a high-voltage cable was brought down by the lava flow.

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