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Congo Volcano Eruption Forces Mass Exodus - 2002-01-19

Nearly half-a-million people are on the run from the Congolese city of Goma, after a nearby volcano erupted, submerging most of the city in fiery lava. Aid agencies are warning of a looming humanitarian disaster.

Some 300,000 Goma residents fled over the border to the Rwandan town of Gisenyi following the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo on Thursday. Another 200,000 people are believed to have escaped westwards, further into Congo.

When the volcano erupted, a 40-meter-wide path of molten lava rolled down the mountain, through the center of Goma and into Lake Kivu, sending sulfuric smoke and steam into the air. The Red Cross estimates that about 80 percent of Goma has been damaged or destroyed, including the airport. Reports say at least 45 people have died.

There is no food, water or sanitation for the refugees who fled to Gisenyi. Displaced people lined the sides of the roads overnight, sleeping wherever they could find a patch of ground.

Apart from hunger and thirst, the refugees are also threatened by diarrhea and malaria. Thousands are having to drink the lake water, which has been polluted by lava. Aid agencies warn of a possible outbreak of cholera. Some agencies are rushing to fly in water purification and basic sanitation systems.

Gisenyi Hospital is overwhelmed with patients suffering from burns caused by lava. Officials say many women have suffered miscarriages caused by stress.

Despite the dire conditions in Goma, thousands of people are returning to the city to try to salvage what they can from their ruined homes.

There is little food or water in Goma. The city's waterworks were destroyed by the lava. Authorities are not distributing what little food they still have because they do not want to encourage a mass return to the city.

The main road is covered in lava, and debris continues to burn. Rescuers are digging out corpses from drying lava that has engulfed whole houses.

A United Nations disaster assessment team is en route to the area, accompanied by volcano experts.

The eruption of Nyiragongo volcano is the most serious in 25 years. In 1977, an eruption killed nearly 2,000 people.