Nyiragongo's Shadow

Congo volcano symbol of death and rebirth

April 25,  2010

By Todd Pitman

MOUNT NYIRAGONGO, Congo (AP) - I was  startled to see it perched at the lip of the volcano's rocky summit: a  small cross marking the spot where one visitor tragically slipped from  the crater's edge and plummeted to her death.

Below, the mesmerizing lava lake that drew her here several years  ago - an awe-inspiring vision of hell - still gushes bright orange  fountains of magma like a bleeding wound in the earth.

Looming ominously over the Eastern Congo city of Goma, Mount  Nyiragongo is the ultimate symbol of death in a town it has repeatedly  overrun.

But for all the danger, it's also a symbol of rebirth and  resilience, not just for residents who've defiantly built homes atop its  hardened volcanic flows, but for a nation still struggling to emerge  from years of conflict.

In March, the volcano itself became one  milestone on that long path: with help from the military, park rangers  cleared Rwandan militias from its slopes and reopened the summit for the  first time in a year and a half.

Authorities are hoping volcano tourism will provide vital new  revenue, and help project a positive new image for a region renowned for  violence.

Last month, 69 visitors - mainly Goma-based foreign aid  workers - paid $200 each to climb the summit, according to park  spokeswoman Samantha Newport.

Blessed with stunning natural diversity, Virunga National Park  became the first wildlife park in Africa when it was established in  1925.

It boasts a second active volcano called Nyamuragira, a third of  the world's last mountain gorillas, hippos at Lake Edward, elephant  herds trundling across golden meadows, even glacial mountain peaks.

As a journalist covering Africa, I have traveled here often over  the last decade - usually to cover what the media is criticized for  covering too much: bad news.

Eastern Congo, to be sure, has seen its share.

Over the past 15 years alone, it's survived apocalyptic  catastrophes - hunger, disease, poverty, plane crashes, fighting,  foreign occupation. I once looked out from my hotel balcony in Goma at  dawn to see insurgents swarming a hilltop downtown, setting army tents  ablaze as machine-gun and rocket fire rang out.

The park has similarly suffered - 95 percent of its hippos, for  example, have been wiped out.

Trekking to Nyiragongo's summit never seemed prudent, or even  possible.

The volcano's lush slopes have become ideal hideouts for poachers  and brutal armed groups, like the Rwandan militias who fled here with  millions of refugees after Rwanda's 1994 genocide. Today, they are still  terrorizing civilians, and chopping forests to profit from a lucrative  and illegal multimillion dollar charcoal trade.

When I heard tourists were actually climbing the summit a few years  ago, I was shocked - and wanted to go. But by 2008, the park had closed  anew, this time because a Congolese rebel group had battled its way to  Goma's outskirts.

Now, clinging to the crater's frigid, 11,384-foot-high rim one  recent moonlit night after an arduous, five-hour hike over solidified  lava flows, it was my turn to gaze into the abyss.

I was speechless.

"It's a miracle," said our park ranger-guide, gazing into the smoky  cone below. "A God-given miracle."
I had to agree.

Sprawling across the floor of the volcano's steaming cone, the lava  lake resembles a colossal pie crust, its blackened surface riddled with  fiery red zigzagging fissures where magma is blazing through. Its power  is evident in the nonstop roar accompanying it, a soundtrack akin to  the perpetual rumble of a gargantuan waterfall.

The lake surface is in constant motion, shifting slowly, splitting,  sinking, consuming itself, spewing lava in prodigious gurgling  fountains - a real-life Hades that's hard to turn away from.

Not far from where I lay hugging the rim, in high wind, the cross  planted for the Chinese tourist who died in 2007 was eerily silhouetted  against the crater's rugged walls, which flickered faintly red from the  boiling lake below.

There are no guard rails at the summit. The cross is a warning not  to get too close.

The tourist reportedly climbed onto a small outcropping just under  the rim to take a picture despite park guards urging her not to. She  lost her balance and plummeted onto another ledge 200 yards below.
Her body was retrieved by U.N. peacekeepers.

"One slip," I thought, backing safely away from the edge before  gaining the courage to stand up.

It's hard to be here and not ponder, for a moment, your own  mortality.

Nyiragongo straddles a giant fault line where the earth's crust is  literally breaking apart. When eruptions occur, the lava lake typically  drains, sending magma pouring through a network of fissures, some of  which run underneath Goma.

The provincial capital of 600,000, to state the obvious, is doomed.
Which is why it's hard, at least for a visitor, to understand why  people live near active volcanoes at all.

Especially this one.

Nyiragongo's lava is notoriously fluid: it can move at speeds up to  60 miles (95 kilometers) per hour downhill, with little warning.

And yet Goma, just nine miles to the south, is growing.

The last eruption in 2002 sent fiery ribbons streaming though  downtown, killing nearly 150 people and forcing hundreds of thousands to  flee.

Residents not only rebuilt in the aftermath, but dramatically  expanded - new shops, new homes, a hotel called Lavastone, a disco  called Magma. Some have brazenly built houses atop the last hardened  flows - the land is cheaper - using the lava rocks themselves as walls,  fences and foundations.

Gregoire Bizige, a 46-year-old father of eight, waited years for  one 2-meter flow to stop steaming. When it finally did, he cleared the  rock away and swiftly pitched a house upon it.

The devastation, ironically, also gave him precious work in a world  where unemployment is rampant. Bizige and his family make a living  breaking the lava field apart, selling the stones to passing  construction crews.

It's enough, he said, to feed his kids and send them to school. But not enough to move his family away.

"We thank God every day for today," Bizige told me, trying to  explain the city's muted acceptance of the volcano it must live with.  "Because tomorrow, we know it will erupt again."