Geneva — Aid agencies say 350,000 people affected by the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo near the city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo are in need of urgent assistance.
Mount Nyiragongo erupted on May 22, turning the sky a fiery red and spewing lava into nearby villages. More than 30 people were killed.
Fears of a second volcanic eruption caused a mass exodus from Goma of most of its 450,000 residents on May 27. Around a quarter of that population fled to the neighboring town of Sake in the eastern province of North Kivu.
The U.N. refugee agency left behind a team of nine people in the area to evaluate the needs of the displaced. The agency and partners immediately began distributing plastic sheeting, water and other aid.
The head of the UNHCR office in Goma, Jackie Keegan, says she and her team since have returned to Goma. Speaking on a video link, she describes the situation in the city as one of uncertainty and unease.
“Yes. I am scared of the aftershocks, of course. Less scared now than I was when the windows were shaking every minute, which was happening about four days ago. But–yeah, it is scary. We are living on an active volcano… Like everybody else who ran away from the volcano, we are trying to figure out how to be as useful as possible in a challenging time,” she said.
The International Organization for Migration reports the eruption has displaced more than 415,000 people, nearly half of them minors. Most have travelled to towns in the eastern DRC, while roughly 52,000 have crossed the border into Rwanda.
IOM spokesman Paul Dillon says about a quarter of those who have fled Goma are very vulnerable and in need of special aid. These groups, he says, include breastfeeding women, the chronically ill, pregnant women, unaccompanied children, the elderly and the disabled.
“Should the displacement last, it is essential that we consider how we are going to prevent the spread of epidemics, facilitate humanitarian assistance and get kids back to school. IOM is particularly concerned by the health hazards linked to the eruption itself, the displacement to areas with pre-existing outbreaks, the lack of access to clean water and the increased burden placed on health facilities,” he said.
Aid agencies warn that people in Goma are at increased risk of cholera, which is endemic in the region and easily spread in areas with poor hygiene and sanitation and insufficient clean water.
The World Food Program reports it has started providing emergency food rations to thousands of people displaced from Goma. Based on assessments carried out over the past week, the WFP says it aims to reach 165,000 people in three cities of refuge. It says additional emergency food assistance is being provided to Congolese who have gone to Rwanda.