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From War to Volcano Eruption: A Goma Resident Speaks About the Tradegy - 2002-01-28

In war-torn eastern Congo, the town of Goma has seen more than its share of hardship in recent years, most recently the eruption of a volcano earlier this month.

Boniface Ndyanabo and his family used to live near the Goma airport, where he works as a fire chief. Standing by the lava-encrusted runway, he points to a clump of trees a few hundred meters away.

"Right near those trees over there, that is where my house was. It was a nice area," he said.

But there is nothing left of his home anymore. Lava from Mount Nyiragongo engulfed it, along with roughly 12,000 other houses, as it burned a path through the center of town.

Many residents of Goma fled across the border into Rwanda as the lava approached. Mr. Ndyanabo did not. He was close enough to watch the river of fire destroy his home and everything he owned.

He says that he saw the lava coming from the mountains. It came rolling up to his house.

He and his children are now staying with friends in a nearby neighborhood. But the experience has left him traumatized. Fear strikes all over again, every time the ground shakes with one of the earthquakes that continue to rattle Goma.

"I still feel horrible. Whenever I hear the earthquakes, I want to run away, fast, because I am so afraid. I do not know what I am afraid of. That is just how I am," he said.

Mr. Ndyanabo is only one of an estimated 100,000 Goma residents with similar stories. And those are just the ones who lost their homes to the volcano. Other people who fled to Rwanda returned to find their houses had been spared by the lava, but not by the looters who plundered the town in the days after the eruption.

But Mr. Ndyanabo does not really want to talk about any of that. He has sought out a VOA reporter for help with a different personal crisis, one that dates back to 1996.

That was when then-rebel-leader Laurent Kabila began his march across what was then Zaire, on his way to toppling the regime of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who had ruled with an iron fist for 32 years.

Mr. Ndyanabo's son, Mokili Pasi Ndyanabo, went off to join the war. The family heard he made it as far as Kinshasa, but they have heard nothing since then. That was five years ago.

Mr. Ndyanabo asked VOA to broadcast a message to his lost son. "The whole family, we are alive. We have no problems, other than our homes being destroyed by the volcano. We beg you, if you are still alive and you hear this message, please inform us because we are worried about you," the father urged.

His plea is symbolic of the repeated tragedies that have plagued residents of Goma over the years. In the words of one resident, "the volcano has just added troubles on top of troubles."

Since 1996, Congo has been split by two civil wars, both of which have led to more strife and hardship for the strategic border town of Goma.

After the 1994 genocide by Hutu extremists in neighboring Rwanda, more than a million Hutu refugees flooded into Goma, fearing reprisals from Rwanda's new Tutsi-led government. The refugee crisis led to a massive cholera outbreak, which killed up to 15,000 people.

And now, on top of everything, a volcano has literally split the town in half, destroying thousands of homes and businesses. People who were desperately poor to begin with are now poorer. Paul Stromberg is a spokesman for the UN High Commission for Refugees, or UNHCR.

"This has just made a bad situation worse. Goma was in desperate need of development aid before this. Development aid because of donor fatigue and the succession of crises, from an influx of refugees, from cholera, successive wars, the lingering effects or aftershocks of 32 years of Mobutu. All of this has contributed to make Goma almost a symbol of crisis in Africa," he said.

Compared to those crises, in the eyes of many onlookers, the volcanic eruption is not the worst thing to happen to Goma in the last 10 years. If nothing else, it has brought an infusion of attention and aid from the international community.

Mr. Stromberg says anywhere else in the world, a similar crisis would probably seem even more catastrophic. "The situation is not the worst humanitarian crisis we've had. One of the things probably which makes it seem that way is that these people, the residents of Goma, their threshold of suffering is so high that it is perhaps only here that you would see several hundred thousand people who have just run from a flow of lava right through main street, coming back in the space of a few days."

A walk through downtown Goma clearly illustrates the resilience of its people.

Despite the devastation, there is a bizarre veneer of normalcy in the town. Within a block on either side of the lava flow, it is basically back to business as usual. Shops are open. Street vendors sell vegetables by the side of the road. Hawkers approach foreign journalists and aid workers, plying traditional Congolese crafts.

But perhaps the most ingenious young residents are actually trying to capitalize on their hometown's tragedy. Two children seen outside the temporary UN office in Goma were selling toy airplanes and Land Rovers, painted with the logos of aid agencies.