Torrents of lava poured into villages after dark in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo with little warning, leaving at least 15 people dead amid the chaos and destroying more than 500 homes, officials and survivors said Sunday.
The eruption of Mount Nyiragongo on Saturday night sent about 5,000 people fleeing from the city of Goma across the nearby border into Rwanda, while another 25,000 others sought refuge to the northwest in Sake, the UN children’s agency said Sunday.
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More than 170 children were still feared missing on Sunday and UNICEF officials said they were organising transit centres to help unaccompanied children in the wake of the disaster.
Goma ultimately was largely spared the mass destruction it suffered the last time the volcano erupted in 2002. Hundreds died then and more than 100,000 people were left homeless. But in outlying villages closer to the volcano, Sunday was marked by grief and uncertainty.
Beatrice Katungu, 47, said her husband and eight of her 10 children were missing.
“I don’t know what happened and if they were burned by the lava because the eruption occurred in the evening,” Katungu told Al Jazeera.
“Some people returned to their homes on Sunday morning but unfortunately, my family hasn’t.”
The air remained thick with smoke from the many homes that caught fire.
Florence Rudasigara, another victim of the eruption, told Al Jazeera no officials had yet come to help her.
“I am a widow. I don’t know where to go. May the government help us. We have not seen any officials come to sympathise with us. We have been abandoned,” Rudasigara said. “We are going to die of hunger. ”
Elsewhere, authorities said at least five other people had died in a truck crash while they were trying to evacuate Goma, but the scale of the loss had yet to be determined in some of the hardest-hit communities.
Residents said there was little warning before the dark sky turned a fiery red, sending people running for their lives in all directions. One woman went into labour and gave birth while fleeing the eruption to Rwanda, the national broadcaster there said.
Smoke rose from smouldering heaps of lava in the Buhene area near the city on Sunday.
“We have seen the loss of almost an entire neighbourhood,” Innocent Bahala Shamavu told The Associated Press.
“All the houses in Buhene neighbourhood were burned and that’s why we are asking all the provincial authorities and authorities at the national level as well as all the partners, all the people of good faith in the world, to come to the aid of this population.”
Witnesses said lava had also engulfed one highway connecting Goma with the city of Beni. However, the airport appeared to be spared the same fate as 2002 when lava flowed onto the runways.
Goma is a regional hub for many humanitarian agencies in the region, as well as the UN peacekeeping mission.
Additional reporting by Esdras Tsongo in Goma.