Volcano victims ignore warnings

Los Angeles Times

GISENYI, Rwanda — Complaining of a chilly reception and scant help, tens of thousands of Congolese left here Sunday to return to the ravaged town of Goma, four days after fleeing from a deadly volcano.

Throughout the day, refugees carrying children, belongings and livestock crossed the Rwandan border into Congo despite warnings from U.N. officials that they faced dangers from contaminated water, toxic sulfurous gases and more eruptions by Mount Nyiragongo.

As the Congolese packed their possessions and said a bitter goodbye to this lakeside town, many said they had been forced to pay Rwandans for small drinks of water and had received no food or medical treatment. By nightfall, the tens of thousands of Gomans who had lined the streets here for the past three nights were gone.

Many Gomans said they preferred to be homeless in their own country.

"In Rwanda, we were roaming all over looking for a resting place," said Bizibu Dieu Donne, who carried a goat over his shoulder as he crossed into Goma. "We’ve seen refugee camps and do not like them. We don’t want to be refugees."

Braving a cold rain, many Gomans walked across still-smoldering beds of lava to get to their former neighborhoods. Some said they wanted to see if their homes were still standing and if their belongings had survived the looting that had taken place since Thursday.

Constance Wanandeke, 61, returned to find her house intact. The lava that destroyed most of her neighbors’ homes had stopped and hardened near her front steps.

"I don’t know why I was so lucky, but someone was looking out for me," she said.

Mdombi Bonnane, 38, was not one of the lucky ones. She came back from Gisenyi to find the entire village of Majengo, near the Goma airport, covered with piles of lava. Scattered bricks and gnarled sheets of metal roofing encased in lava were the only evidence that her house had existed.

Bonnane, a mother of eight, ages 8 to 18, also became a mother of 12 on Sunday when she adopted four young children whose parents were apparently killed by the volcano.

Bonnane and the 12 children had not eaten anything since Saturday night, yet she was optimistic.

"Help will come," she said.

But Bonnane and other displaced people will have to wait. The United Nations has set up two refugee camps about 15 miles inside Rwanda. The camps, however, house only 5,000 of the nearly 500,000 people displaced by the volcano.

Laura Melo, a spokeswoman for the U.N. World Food Program, said the relief agency was still determining how to help refugees who had returned to Goma.

"We still believe the situation in Goma is not stable," she said. "We are advising people not to go there right now."

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