Human rights defenders and Protection International staff were forced to put their work on hold, while Nyiragongo volcano erupted in their backyard
June 2021 – “The volcanic eruption of Nyiragongo came like a thief. The early warning system did not alert us as early as possible; the lava came suddenly and people were in total panic,” explained Ephrem Chiruza, Communication Officer at Protection International in Goma, DR Congo.
The day began just like any other, there were no tremors or earthquakes that would indicate impending volcanic activity. Around 6:00 pm, the sky over Goma turned a fire red. Many thought that a house had been set ablaze, but within minutes, phone calls and messages from people living in the north of Goma confirmed the volcanic eruption of the Nyiragongo Volcano. An influx of videos showing the lava flowing in the direction of Goma created a total panic. People ran first to their homes to pack what they could. Luckily, most people were able to flee and escape the trajectory of the lava.
The lava flow stopped just a kilometer away from the city’s international airport. At least 30 people lost their lives and hundreds of houses were razed to the ground.
Two days after, the situation went from bad to worse as earthquakes and tremors intensified. Buildings cracked and collapsed. The power was out. The lava burnt the main grid providing electricity to Goma, causing blackouts and water shortages in several areas of Goma. The situation has caused temporary food shortages and prices for goods are skyrocketing.
On 26 May 2021, Congolese authorities urged city residents to evacuate, given that scientists predicted another imminent volcanic eruption in the center of Goma or under Lake Kivu. Lake Kivu is one of many lakes along the East African Rift Valley where the tectonic plates are highly active. The volcanic activity infuses carbon dioxide and methane into the hot layer of water at the bottom of the lake, which if released can cause asphyxiation. Even worse, would be if the methane were to be met with fire, causing an explosion, which could be more disastrous for people living in Goma City and the surrounding area.
Resultantly, around 450,000 people fled from Goma to Sake, Minova and Bukavu, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), including many human rights defenders from the communities that PI works with in Goma. Others crossed the border to seek safety in Rwanda.
“On my way to Sake, I met many children, women and old men exhausted on the road. In Sake, displaced people were crowded in schools and churches …with zero assistance,” said our colleague Ephrem Chiruza, who evacuated by car from Goma to Bukavu. It took two days for Ephrem to reach Bukavu by road, which is about a 300 km distance. “Luckily, my two brothers and I made it safely,” he said.
Following the decision of Congolese authorities to evacuate Goma, Protection International, like many organizations, had to suspend formal activities in Goma but continued to provide basic support to human rights defenders, especially those who are affected by the eruption. Seven PI staff members based in Goma have also been directly impacted, whom four had to evacuate their family members to Bukavu and Minova.
Despite the immense shock generated by this situation, our staff in Goma have remained resilient and continue to build back what has been lost. With the support from our regional headquarters, we have continued to stand in solidarity with all human rights defenders from Goma who had to flee. Given the impact the recent eruption has generated on the mental health of defenders, PI will conduct additional trainings on well-being, stress management and psychosocial support this July.
One of our partner organizations, La LUCHA RDC has played a critical role in the field by providing assistance to displaced people. Activists from this social movement have been helping to meet basic needs, such as cleaning toilets in Sake town, providing clean water and feeding those who have been displaced. La LUCHA and other movements have launched the call to action “SOS Goma Volcano Relief” that will help to scale up assistance for displaced people and those who are affected.
Several activists have received verbal threats and others have received complaints from the courts simply because they alerted about a diversion of aid by local authorities in Rutshuru territory in North Kivu Province. Protection International urges DR Congo authorities to ensure activists continue to enjoy their right to freedom of expression during these difficult times. In addition, PI calls on the international community to show solidarity to the people of Goma, especially to those who lost their houses and belongings in the eruption of Nyiragongo volcano.
Three weeks after the eruption of Nyiragongo, Congolese authorities and scientists from “la Surveillance Volcanologique de Goma” are allowing for displaced people to return back home as earthquakes and tremors have steadily decreased. Though the situation has improved, most people are returning to a place without shelter and damaged infrastructure—we urge that human rights and humanitarian efforts be respected and protected during the rebuilding of Goma post-disaster.