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Goma Airport Reopens

In the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the airport in Goma has finally reopened, more than a week after an erupting volcano forced it to close. Nearly a third of the runway is still covered with lava. That has not stopped the planes from taking off.

Armed only with a steel pipe and a shovel, two men are chipping away at the vast expanse of hardened lava covering the runway at the Goma airport.

The lava is still too hot to touch in some places. As it cools, it sends plumes of steam and smoke spiraling into the air.

A small crowd of people has gathered to watch, but nobody helps. The two men are probably fighting a losing battle. The layer of volcanic rock is nearly a meter thick. It covers a section of the airstrip 600 meters long and roughly 200 meters across.

But airport authorities say the runway was more than four kilometers long to begin with. Since the lava covers only one end, there is still plenty of space for planes to land and take off.

Bwana Puwa is one of the airport managers.

"The airport now is open, and we have a runway of 3.6 kilometers, which is enough for an aircraft to land," he says.

The terminal building and the control tower were untouched by the lava flow. And so air traffic controller Leonard Munyaga has resumed his duties.

On its first day back in business, the lava-encrusted airport was not nearly as busy as it was before the volcano erupted. Only one airline had scheduled any flights. A small plane took 17 passengers to the town of Butevu, about 750 kilometers north of Goma.

The reopening of the Goma airport will be vital for United Nations operations in eastern Congo. A U.N. helicopter landed while VOA was there. U.N. agencies can now fly relief supplies directly into Goma, to aid the more than 80,000 people left homeless by the volcano.

They can also resume shipments of food and essential health supplies from Goma to interior cities like Kisangani, which are not accessible by road.

But it will be quite some time before all parts of the airport are functioning. The lava covers the part of the runway closest to the terminal building. That means planes cannot taxi up to the terminal. So passengers have to hike through a field to board their flights.

David Sompo usually worked in the navigation office, until it was cut off by the lava flow. "Pilots, they usually come there to fill out their flight plan," he explains. "But now there is no way to reach the door of the navigation office. They are just planning to make a new one, so that they can pass through."

At this point, it appears only smaller planes are using the airport. It is not clear when that will change.

Authorities are concerned that the volcanic eruption and the frequent earthquakes that have followed it might have weakened the ground under the remaining runway. The seismic activity might have also created gas pockets underneath. A team of engineers is studying the airstrip to decide whether it is strong enough to bear the weight of heavier aircraft.