DR Congo: People displaced by volcano eruption share stories of solidarity

June 23, 2021

Hundreds of thousands living near Mount Nyiragongo have found shelter with neighboring communities

The eruption of Mount Nyiragongo on May 22 displaced hundreds of thousands of people in and around the city of Goma, in North Kivu province, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The tremors and aftershocks that followed caused widespread fear and threatened new disasters, prompting a mass evacuation. Teams from Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) are currently providing humanitarian assistance in Goma, Sake, and Rutshuru.

Families have sought shelter in nearby towns, and some are now starting to return to Goma. Many people are still struggling to access essential aid. At the same time, they have found support among host communities.

Faida Lumo, a resident of Sake, has been hosting people who left Goma since the day after the eruption.

“My children and I moved the furniture to accommodate as many people as possible,” Faida says. “It was not enough, so we took over my mother’s house, right next to mine. After the [official] order came to evacuate Goma on May 27, thousands of people have arrived in this small town on the shores of Lake Kivu.”

Faida has provided shelter to 17 people, despite facing hardships.

“It has become very difficult, especially because of the lack of drinking water,” she says. “We organize ourselves into teams to fetch water from a stream near our home, then we disinfect it thanks to the chlorine distribution points installed by MSF.”

Knowing that cholera is an endemic disease in Sake, one of MSF’s first concerns was to provide safe drinking water. With the city overcrowded with newcomers, the limited water supply was not enough to meet the needs of thousands of people. In the first four days of work in Sake, MSF distributed 243,000 liters (over 640,000 gallons) of water to local communities and displaced people. We also built latrines and increased the number of chlorine distribution points. Promoting good hygiene measures helps prevent the spread of waterborne diseases.

Displaced people sleep in churches, schools, or the homes of local families, while others bed down outside. Many residents say they have hardly eaten in the past few days. Aid groups warn of a possible cholera outbreak.

Magali Roudaut, MSF head of mission, lists the needs: “Water, food, latrines, shelters, blankets, and jerrycans for water.”

Antoine Ngola Syntexe is a 23-year-old student who arrived in Sake with his parents and three siblings after authorities ordered the evacuation of parts of Goma. He joined youth civil society groups to try to meet the immense needs of other displaced people in the city.

“The crowding of people into the sites where they had found shelter generated tensions,” says Syntexe. “Fortunately, we have access to free health care, thanks to MSF. They treat everyone.”

In many places, the lack of essential items, such as cooking utensils and blankets, has pushed thousands of people to return to Goma, even before the government’s announcement that it was safe to return.

This is what happened to Dieudonné Bizimungu, whose house in Goma was nearly swallowed by lava. He went to Kibumba, north of the city, and returned with his family after two days. Even though he is back in the place he knows as home, the situation in Goma is still extremely difficult.

In Goma and surrounding areas, MSF provides free primary health care consultations, and medicine and hygiene items to displaced people. Besides keeping the health support provided for patients in Goma before the disaster, medical teams are reinforcing cholera surveillance and monitoring systems in four health centers in the city, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health.

The lack of access to water remains one of the biggest problems in Goma. About half a million residents have been without access to clean water since lava poured into the city’s main reservoir. People often have to resort to paying for jerrycans of water. Jean-Claude Bazibuhe has been a water seller in Goma for 17 years.

“I am part of the association of water dealers on bicycles in Goma,” explains Bazibuhe. “The demand for potable water is on the rise.”

For Bazibuhe, this is a reason to work even harder.

Bazibuhe is well acquainted with both the suffering of the people who remained in Goma and those who had to leave the city.

“When the night turned red, we rushed out of the house to escape the danger,” he says. “Two of my children were injured, and they are still in pain. They took shelter in Minova, in South Kivu.”

Jean-Claude Bazibuhe says that after a few days in Minova, his family has returned to Goma: “Now, it is hunger that grips them.”