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Report From Goma: Cooled Lava Like 'Surface of the Moon' - 2002-01-24

In eastern Congo, foreign aid has finally reached the town of Goma, nearly a week after a volcanic eruption forced tens of thousands of people from their homes. When Mount Nyragongo erupted, it spewed enough molten lava to literally cut the town in half.

Driving into Goma from the Rwandan border, everything looks deceptively normal. The outskirts of town are untouched by volcanic catastrophe. Buildings are still standing, the electricity is still working, and the paint is not even scorched, until you get to the center of town.

There, Goma suddenly begins to look like the surface of the moon. The river of lava that burned a path through town last week has hardened, leaving a layer of black volcanic rock one-meter thick. It literally splits the town in half.

In many places, the hardened lava is still warm to the touch. Smoke still rises from buildings gutted by fire, but the flames have finally gone out.

Although cars cannot travel from one side of town to the other, a steady stream of people make their way over the lava bed on foot.

Life in Goma is slowly returning to normal, or as normal as it can get for the tens of thousands of people made homeless by the volcano.

Mohamadain Cwaleh and his family lost everything when the lava overran their house. He says he has nothing left but the clothes on his back. "Our things were just burned in the house, everything we left here in Goma," he said. "So we don't have homes! And we are living like animals."

Right after the volcano erupted, Mr. Cwaleh fled across the border to Rwanda with his family. But it was too expensive for them to remain there. And to make things worse, their car was stolen. "So after reaching Rwanda things were going worse!" he said.

He and his family could not afford to support themselves in the Rwandan border town of Gisenyi, and the did not want to go live in a refugee camp. So, like most residents of Goma, they have come back, despite having lost everything they own.

Mr. Cwaleh is living with his grandmother in a part of town untouched by the catastrophe. But like Goma itself, the volcano split his family in half. Mr. Cwaleh says some of his relatives fled west, to the town of Sake. They are still there.

He says he does not know how he or his parents will earn a living now, or how they will begin to rebuild their lives. For now, it is simply a matter of finding something to eat. Mr. Cwaleh has not yet received any of the foreign aid that finally arrived in Goma Wednesday.

Immediately after the eruption, aid agencies were afraid it was not safe to distribute food, water and blankets in Goma itself, for fear the volcano would erupt again. They handed out relief supplies across the border, in Gisenyi, Rwanda, instead.

But when the refugees started returning home, aid agencies had to follow them. The first aid distributions in Goma have begun. But so many people were affected by the catastrophe that it is likely to be quite some time before everyone who needs help gets it.