The eastern DR Congo city of Goma was eerily deserted on Friday after nearly 400,000 of its inhabitants fled following warnings that nearby Mount Nyiragongo volcano may erupt again.
The authorities geared for a major humanitarian effort, centered on Sake, around 25 kilometers (15 miles) west of the city, where tens of thousands of people are gathered.
Located on the shore of Lake Kivu in the shadow of Africa’s most active volcano, the city has lived in fear since Nyiragongo roared back into life at the weekend.
The strato-volcano spewed rivers of lava that claimed nearly three dozen lives and destroyed the homes of some 20,000 people before the eruption stopped.
Scientists monitoring the volcano have since recorded hundreds of aftershocks.
They warn of a potentially catastrophic scenario — a “limnic eruption” that could smother the area with suffocating carbon dioxide.
A report on an emergency meeting early Friday said 80,000 households — equivalent to around 400,000 inhabitants — had emptied on Thursday following a “preventative” evacuation order.
Most people have headed for Sake and for the Rwandan border in the northeast, while others have fled by boat across Lake Kivu.
Aid efforts are being organised to provide drinking water, food, and other supplies, and workers are helping to reunite children who became separated from their families.
On Friday, almost all of the shops and banks in central Goma were closed, and just a handful of people and some motorcycle taxis were on the usually bustling streets.
In the poorer districts in the north of the city, a handful of stores were open and there were more people, including children who gambolled around near a water truck.
“I will stay in the city. I know that I’m in imminent danger but I don’t have a choice,” said Aline Uramahoro, who has a beer store.
“I will leave when the volcano starts spitting.”
Security guards were deployed around the local mansions, their windows shuttered, on the shore of the lake.
A few families were seen leaving the city on foot, bags of belongings on their heads, with their children holding hands. There was no special deployment of police or military personnel.
Several days of aftershocks, some of them equivalent to small earthquakes, yielded to a quieter night Thursday, and tremors eased both in numbers and intensity, an AFP journalist said.
General Constant Ndima, the military governor of North Kivu province, ordered the evacuation of districts that potentially applies to nearly 400,000 out of Goma’s 600,000 residents, according to an estimate by the UN humanitarian agency OCHA.
The wider Goma area has a population of around two million people.
The authorities arranged transport towards Sake, but the roads became choked with cars, trucks, buses, and people seeking safety on foot.
Many people spent the night in the open or slept in schools or churches.
“We have a problem with the water here, the children are not used to it and are starting to get diarrhea,” said evacuee Eugene Kubugoo.
“We don’t have anything to eat or any place to sleep.”
Tens of thousands of people had fled Goma after Nyiragongo kicked into life on Saturday night but many then returned when the eruption ended the following day.
OCHA said more than 4,500 homes were destroyed by lava, affecting some 20,000 people.
Friday’s report, issued after experts carried out a risk assessment at the volcano’s summit, said “seismicity and ground deformation continues to indicate the presence of magna under the Goma area, with an extension under Lake Kivu.”
People should remain vigilant and listen to news bulletins, as the situation “may change quickly”, it warned.
Volcanologists say the worst-case scenario is of an eruption under the lake.
This could release hundreds of thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) that are currently dissolved in the water’s depths.
The gas would rise to the surface of the lake, forming an invisible cloud that would linger at ground level and displace oxygen, asphyxiating life.
In 1986, one of these so-called limnic eruptions killed more than 1,700 people and thousands of cattle at Lake Nyos in western Cameroon.
Nearly 3,500 meters (11,500 feet) high, Nyiragongo straddles the East African Rift tectonic divide.
Its last major eruption, in 2002, claimed around 100 lives.
The deadliest eruption on record killed more than 600 people in 1977.
The latest episode adds to the many woes in the east of the vast Democratic Republic of Congo, a country the size of continental western Europe.
Scores of armed groups roam the east, many of them a legacy of two regional wars that ran from 1996 to 2003.