“We Just Don’t Care”: A Volcanic Disaster in Africa

While the world ignores eruption of Mount Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo, more suffering in a region that’s seen too much.

A little boy named James frowns or looks frightened in every photo I’ve seen of him. At just 3 years old, he’s malnourished and listless, and he’s a refugee on his own.

During the madness of the nighttime escape from the May 22 eruption of Mount Nyiragongo near the city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo, James was separated from his mother and swept along with thousands of strangers running for their lives.

No one who arrived with James in the town of Minova, across the northern tip of Lake Kivu from Goma, knows anything about him. When given bread to eat, he only says maji, which means “water” in Kiswahili. Otherwise, he simply repeats his name.

When the volcano unexpectedly blew that Saturday evening, hundreds of thousands of people—by some counts as many as a million—fled to the nearby Congolese towns of Minova and Sake, as well as over the border into Rwanda. At least 31 people died, and many more remain missing. At least 5,000 homes were destroyed.

Earlier in the day, Goma’s residents had begun to smell sulfur, and as nighttime approached, the sky slowly deepened into a haunting red color. Darkness fell at 6 p.m. Central African Time, as it does every night of the year; the volcano’s caldera began spewing fiery lava at 7 p.m. With most of the power cut, the mass exodus from the city was, at best, chaotic. Nine people died in a car accident as they fled.

Over in Sake, which is about 15 miles from Goma, there is already a small cholera outbreak. With little to no access to clean water and thousands of people cramped together in unsanitary conditions, experts fear the outbreak will only get worse.

And James is not the only child alone in this bedlam; about 1,000 children were separated from their parents during the initial panic. Most of them have been reunited, aid groups say—most, but not all. UNICEF estimates that 280,000 children have been or will be displaced.

And now these children, including those who managed to stay with their parents, are facing hunger, illness, and homelessness.

But, as I wrote here, there’s a deficit in the America media when it comes to covering African stories, so perhaps you haven’t heard much about this.

A friend of mine named Clare Campbell from Washington State had been planning a trip to eastern Democratic Republic for months. She finally made it there on May 27—just five days after the eruption. Clare runs a nonprofit called Congo Threads that supports children in the country. Needless to say, the work she’d planned to do while there changed instantly.

This weekend, Clare sent me an urgent message from Minova:

“We need you to document all this chaos!” she wrote.

So, here goes.

As news reports trickled in on May 22, I was confused as to why all the international NGOs, many of which are headquartered in Goma, weren’t jumping into action. (Doing almost nothing was exactly what I and many, many others expected and witnessed from the Congolese government—but I had higher hopes for the aid groups.) Apparently, the NGOs’ staffers had been forced to evacuate the city or were delayed by the generally slow mobilization that plagues large nonprofits during a sudden catastrophe.

“The late response by international NGOs to the crisis here has been met with much resentment, and also much resignation,” Clare told me.

It took about a week and a half for these organizations—including the World Food Program, Medecins Sans Frontiéres and World Vision—to show up in Minova, people told her.

On the day of the eruption, the government didn’t begin to evacuate anyone until hours after the lava began to flow—and even then, carried out the evacuation haphazardly. As is so often the case in Congo, people were left to fend for themselves.

The Congolese government is notoriously corrupt and often uninterested in helping its citizens. In fact, North Kivu’s governor, Lt. Gen. Constant Ndima, is known as “Effacer le Tableau” (“Erase the Board”), says Human Rights Watch, after the name of “an abusive operation” he allegedly led as a rebel commander with the Movement for the Liberation of Congo in Ituri province in 2002.

“His soldiers allegedly killed, raped, mutilated and ate members of two rival tribes,” according to The Economist. Ndima, the magazine says, has never commented on the allegations.

As for the UN, which has its largest peacekeeping force in the world in Congo, Clare said she’s not seeing a real presence in Minova.

“I’ve seen a couple of UN vehicles here, but all are speeding through town with well-dressed fancy-looking Congolese people inside,” she said.

I asked her where the refugees are sleeping.

“On the ground,” she said. Or “with anyone kind enough to take them in. Nothing is organized here, like tents or facilities.”

And, as if these miseries are not enough to endure, there are also reports that men have been perpetrating sexualized violence against women refugees.

On her second day in Minova, Clare and her colleague Herman Chirihambali went to the town’s civil society offices to see if they could find out what was being planned for the refugees. Chirihambali is a former teacher and principal, and the director of a home for orphans called Ishara House. He estimated that about 10,000 Nyiragongo refugees are in Minova right now.

While waiting out on the office’s verandah “for some bigwigs to apparently finish a meeting,” as Clare put it, they met a group of what she called “powerful and very angry refugee women” who stormed the offices, demanding to be heard. The women on that terrace, she said, were furious because they’d not received food that had been allocated for refugees in the past five days.

(For a formidable example of how the mobilization of women can bring about progress, see how Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee and her fellow anti-war activists ended the 2003 conflict in Liberia. Watch “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” an extraordinary documentary about the movement, from producer Abigail Disney.)

One of the women, named Alise, was pregnant and sobbing. She’d fled Goma with her 18-month-old daughter and a few other women from her neighborhood. Alise went with Clare to her hotel room so she could rest and eat whatever food Clare had—there was basically none available in the city. Clare also gave her some money and promised to help pay her maternity bill when the baby comes.

Back in Goma, Alise sells shoes on the street. Her husband has been out of work, and he remained home. She worries that whatever shoes she had to leave behind will be gone when she returns.

The constant dangers of the still unstable volcano include airborne ash that can cause lung damage, and the presence of toxic gases like sulfur dioxide, which is harmful to humans and animals.

Even if enough aid somehow arrives for the families who fled Goma, between ongoing earthquakes and treacherously polluted air, it’s not clear that anyone will be safe if and when they return home.

Then there’s also the threat that Lake Kivu could explode.

Yes, explode.

Trapped in the massive lake—which is a major regional source of fish such as sambaza and ndugu—are huge amounts of methane and carbon dioxide. The gases come from volcanic vents deep beneath the water’s placid surface. An eruption, or an earthquake (of which there have been hundreds since Nyiragongo went off), could release these dangerous gases and potentially harm or kill hundreds of thousands of people. It’s called a limnic eruption, and it’s happened before.

In 1986, a lake in Cameroon called Nyos released its store of carbon dioxide after a suspected landslide, asphyxiating 1,800 people who lived nearby. But Lake Kivu is more than 50 times the size and twice the depth of Nyos—and its methane content means that a gas cloud that bubbles up could literally ignite in the air.

Only 14,000 people lived near Nyos at the time. More than 2 million residents surround Lake Kivu.

We in the West heard about the Nyiragongo eruption, a little. Maybe you saw videos of the startling explosion played repeatedly that night on CNN. But U.S news outlets hardly covered the disaster, or its ongoing consequences. Some newspapers did write about Nyiragongo, but gave it less attention than a subsequent European tragedy, the fall of a cable car in Italy that killed 14 people.

I had a bit of a Twitter fit on the day of the eruption about all this:

2+ million people’s lives are at risk with a massive volcanic explosion in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But trending on Twitter is: Rick Santorum, Joe Buck, Eurovision, Allen Weisselberg. Either Americans don’t care, or the press isn’t centering it. Congo is nearly the size of Western Europe and is the wealthiest country in the world—in the ground—with an estimated untapped $24 trillion in raw minerals. But the Congolese are cheated out of it. Maybe this is what Americans need to hear to start caring about them?

After hours, NYT still does not have a story about this on the home page. WaPo does.

And NYT is only running a single story—from AP. This is exactly the problem with not investing in journalism in Africa. The paper only has 3 bureaus in sub-Saharan Africa, and not many more correspondents than that.

It’s many, many hours into the crisis in eastern Congo, and NYT STILL doesn’t have a mention of it on its homepage (at least on the app). You have to go to the “World” section & scroll & scroll just to see a video of lava, and the AP story published hours ago.

[The next day]: There was zero mention of the explosion in the NYT morning email. I’m just dumbfounded.

I get it—it’s hard to sustain attention to something so far away and so awful. We also have little or no connection to Congo as Americans. There are so many reasons for that, but I think it’s mainly because it’s a broken country made up of Black people. Aka nobody cares, and racism.

In fact, I asked on Twitter why no one seemed to care, and a fair number of people literally tweeted at me: “We just don’t.”

Writer and activist Soraya Chemaly once said to me that keeping painful truths at a distance “enables people to believe that they are immune from the risk, that their behavior, their traditions, their belief systems aren’t implicated in harm.”

But good journalism and strong activism both mean helping people see that when someone is hurting—as these refugees are—we all hurt. When any governments fail to protect their citizens, we all become that much more vulnerable. When media attention dies down, we fail not only the people “over there,” but we fail ourselves.

We do not live in isolation.

This piece originally appeared in Chills, the Substack written and edited by Wolfe.

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Lauren Wolfe

Lauren Wolfe is an award-winning journalist who runs Chills, her new Substack.