GOMA, Congo — Bright red lava shot into the air from what appeared to be a new volcanic cone in eastern Congo Saturday, sending a new wave of molten rock into the devastated center of Goma, slicing the city in half, killing at least 40 people and forcing thousands more from their homes.
As seen from a Rwandan Air Force helicopter, a small black cone was forming in what had been a banana grove on Congo’s border with Rwanda. The new lava was spewing to the southwest, covering one third of the runway at Goma’s airport and destroying the city’s Roman Catholic cathedral and thousands of homes.
A second lava flow also poured from a fissure at the base of the erupting Mount Nyiragongo, six miles west of the new cone and 12 miles north of the city.
There are eight volcanoes in eastern Congo and Rwanda, but only two are active. They have developed several new craters over the years.
More than 300,000 people have fled Goma into neighboring Gisenyi, Rwanda, where they have been living on the streets, sheltering at night under shop porches.
An estimated 180,000 more people remained marooned by the lava on the other side of the divided city, without potable water or electricity, said Adolphe Onusumba, the leader of the Rwandan-backed Congolese rebel group that controls Goma and who visited the stranded people by helicopter.
"People are beginning to return, but they are complaining of no food, no water. They are hungry," Onusumba said. He said 85 percent of the central business district had been destroyed, including warehouses holding food supplies.
Like two spokes extending from Mount Nyiragongo, lava flows 160 feet wide and up to 10 feet deep in places ploughed through the city. Onusumba said 10,000 homes, or 40 percent of the city, had been destroyed. One of the lava flows created a 330-foot wide delta as it poured into Lake Kivu, producing a huge cloud of sulfuric steam.
Upon landing in the western half of the city, where no outside aid has reached the stranded population, Onusumba tried to reassure the people.
"We are asking the international community to come here and bring aid," Onusumba told the crowd. "We are doing everything we can to help you."
Any aid sent to western Goma would have to be delivered by boat, because the lava is too hot to cross and there are no airfields.
Officials said the situation remained chaotic.
"There is no food, no water, no sanitation. We are here like animals," said Richard Mwambo, a teacher who fled Goma and embarked on a dangerously overcrowded ferry for the 12-hour trip south to Bukavu.
"We’re afraid of dying. If we are to die, it is better to die in Congo, not Rwanda."
Damascene Ntiruhungwa, the Rwandan interior minister, said U.N. and aid agencies recognized the potential for a cholera outbreak because of a shortage of potable water, and were moving quickly to provide assistance to the refugees. Both of Goma’s water treatment plants were destroyed by lava, and there was limited water in Gisenyi.
"This is a natural catastrophe, and Rwanda has a moral obligation to help them because they are our neighbors," Ntiruhungwa said. He said the government had set up two camps for the displaced.
But he said few of the refugees wanted to go into the camps and many had chosen to return to their homes. He said officials would warn those returning to Goma of the dangers but would not try to stop them.
The 11,381-foot Nyiragongo last erupted in January 1977.
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