GOMA, Congo – Mount Nyiragongo in Congo erupted on Saturday for the first time in nearly two decades. The night sky turned fiery red, sending lava onto a major highway as panicked residents tried to flee Goma, a city of nearly 2 million people.
There was no immediate word about any victims, but witnesses said Lava had already devoured a highway connecting Goma to the city of Beni in North Kivu Province.
The last eruption of Mount Nyiragongo in 2002 left hundreds of dead and coated runways in lava. More than 100,000 people were left homeless as a result, which heightened fear in Goma on Saturday evening.
“We are already in total psychosis,” Zacharie Paluku told The Associated Press. “Everyone is afraid; People run away. We really don’t know what to do. “
Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi said he would return home from Europe earlier than planned on Sunday to coordinate relief efforts.
The government said an evacuation plan was being activated, but the official announcement came a few hours after the sky turned fiery red and many had already fled on foot in hopes of crossing the Rwandan border post just outside the city. Car horns honked and motorcycle taxis were woven as people tried to flee in a panic.
The Rwandan immigration authorities reported that, according to the national broadcaster, around 3,000 people had already officially traveled from the Congo to escape the eruption of the volcano.
The United States Peace Mission, known as the MONUSCO tweeted dramatic footage of the town of Alit, saying it was conducting reconnaissance flights over Goma, where it maintains a large base.
“The lava does not seem to be going towards the city of Goma. We remain on the alert, “it said.
Some sought refuge on board boats on Lake Kivu, while others fled to Mount Goma, the highest point in the metropolitan area.
The lack of immediate announcements from authorities and conflicting reports on social media only added to the chaos in Goma.
Authorities at the Goma Volcano Observatory initially said it was the nearby Nyamulagira volcano that erupted. The two volcanoes are about 8 miles apart.
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Volcanologist Charles Balagizi said the observatory’s report was based on the direction the lava appeared to be flowing, towards Rwanda rather than Goma.
Located on the border between the Congo and neighboring Rwanda, Goma is a regional center for many humanitarian organizations in the region, as well as for the United States’ MONUSCO.
The erupting volcano is also near Virunga National Park, home to some of the world’s last mountain gorillas.
While Goma is home to many United States peacekeepers and aid workers, much of the surrounding Eastern Congo is also threatened by a variety of armed groups fighting for control of the region’s mineral resources.