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31 Jan 2002

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Wellbeing Sale

A Rwandan tour – with a difference!
Readers might have remembered that over the last year we have run articles and requests for money and equipment for Rwanda. This week's edition was late due to the article we are running now, thanks to Prof. A Hobson, the lay reader of St. Luke's Church.  Prof. A Hobson was with a party who has visited, several times, the region affected by the volcano and some of the group including him were on scene during early this week.  Prof. Hobson tells the story from here on.  

"It must have been about 2.30 in the morning of Sunday January 20th. The earth shook, the building rattled, and outside there was quite a commotion as the birds flew from their perches with squawks and screeches. This was the latest and most powerful tremor I had experienced from the Nyiragongo volcano in the aftermath of its destructive eruption, and as it hopefully returns to a state of slumber. For a short while I felt that the people sleeping on the ground outside the guest house had the safest accommodation, and that they may have been lucky that all covered sleeping areas were full.

I had arrived in Rwanda the previous Friday morning, and was met at the airport by Archdeacon Ephram, who told me that there were many people from Goma staying at the Guest house. The driver was Emmanuel from the Provincial Offices/Kigali Diocese. He told me that one of the volcanoes had erupted and that I should go to see it. I did not associate the two items of information at the time and would not do until I got to the guest house and tuned my radio to the BBC world service. Everything was quite normal when I left home!

 Nyiragongo is 43 km (27 miles) from Ruhengeri where I was staying, and 19 km (12 Miles) from the town of Goma. It towers some 2000 m, or 6600 ft above the town, which is on the edge of Lake Kivu.

(Above) A destroyed restaurant in Goma.

In Ruhengeri town there were many more people than I had seen previously. They had come from the decimated town of Goma, seeking refuge in Rwanda. It is difficult for them to go into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) because of the various militias operating there, and because it is mainly forest.

Monday 21st January I went to Goma with Bishop John of the Anglican Diocese of Shyira in Rwanda. I found it to be a difficult day, with scenes of desolation and hopelessness. More people than normal were moving along the roads as people come from Goma into Rwanda, and as some return to Goma! Goma has an estimated population of 500,000, with only 50,000 remaining after the eruption. 300,000 had fled into Rwanda, with 150,000 going into DRC.

(Above) Refugees On Road Gisenyi Ruhengeri.

The Rwandan Government had decreed that people should not be fed in towns, but should go into camps. The purpose was quite simple – they were concerned about sanitation and disease, and felt that it would be better to have people in properly prepared accommodation. This is, of course, perfectly sensible and sound unless you are a refugee when you may feel that once in a camp there is no way out. The policy was interpreted by many of the refugees as saying that they were not wanted in Rwanda. Many people returned to Goma.

The border between Rwanda and DRC s open and we were able to cross without showing any papers. For a long time now Goma has been under the control of Rwandan supporting Militia. Rwanda has, of course, been concerned about its security along the North-West border with DRC, and some people have suggested that the militia are Rwandan sponsored as a means of enhancing security. The Interhamwe militia who were largely responsible for the 1994 genocide still have upwards of 30,000 members in the area of DRC near to Rwanda.

We only went to the edge of the lava flow. The lava seemed to have come down the mountain and through the commercial centre of the town. As it went through the town it seems to have gone down roads to the side of the main flow, filling the gap between the buildings. The scene was of a street with a black mass of lava filling all space between buildings but with the buildings still standing. The lava was about 6 feet thick, and came to a fairly abrupt end, so that the effect was of a wall across the street. We were actually on the main road between Rwanda and DRC.

(Above) What was left of the main road in Goma.

The lava was hot, but people were walking across it to get to the buildings. A short way away black smoke was rising, this completing the scene of devastation. The smoke actually came from a filling station that had caught fire killing upwards of 60 looters.

(Above) Lava flowing into Lake Kivu.

We then went down to the shores of Lake Kivu. There was steam coming up from the edge of the lake where the magna was flowing into the water. There is some concern, we were told, about the effects of the lava on the lake, and if it may have any effect on its bottom. These fears are not unfounded. As the Bishop was being interviewed by ABC TV (Australia) there was a noise, Phut – Phut – Phut, and soil shot into the air followed by steam. It was only ten feet away from us, and we made a hasty retreat from the lakeshore.

We then went to a meeting which included many people from Goma, and Gisenyi on the Rwandan side of the border also present were representatives of Action by Churches Together, ACT, an umbrella organisation for Christian based aid, Christian Aid in the UK, Norwegian Church Aid, and Lutheran Aid. The fluidity of the situation became apparent – It seems that people go back to Goma in the day and that some then return to Gisenyi in the evening. They go to the churches for sanctuary, and even though the Rwandan government disapproves they are provided with accommodation. “Is that not why we are here?” they asked. It also emerged that many of the houses that people may go to are damaged even though they may not have been in the lava flow – the high winds which came with the lava brought roofs down (they are made of iron sheet) and damaged buildings.

Some areas of Goma have water or electricity supplied from DRC or Rwanda, but these are only on the edge of town, away from the destruction. The main power plant is under lava. 

(Above) LWF Food distribution.

On the way back to Ruhengeri we stopped at two refugee camps, Nkamira and Cyuve. I have seen refugee camps before, but nothing like this. These were people who, just four days before, had been living perfectly normal lives in a town nearby, and through an immense natural disaster had had to flee their home with only the few things they could carry. One man said to me “These are all I now possess!” as he run his hands over the clothes he was wearing.


(Above) LWF with Eer Par Ner provides kitchen sets to Ruhengeri transit camp

Their lives now seemed to consist of queuing for registration, for handouts of various sorts, or whatever else was decreed. There was smoke everywhere – it came from the wood fires people were using to cook whatever food they had. There seemed to be no privacy – people were mostly housed in large tents, rather than having individual accommodation. It is easy to condemn people who become refugees for their un kept state, because they are dirty, and their clothes smell, or just because they are refugees, and I had to keep reminding myself – these are people who just 4 days ago were living a normal life. They do not want to be here, and the fact that they are is not their fault.


Rwanda is a poor country which has itself been devastated by war and genocide. It is now at peace, so it is easy to condemn the Government for lack of care, but from what I have seen they are doing the best they can with the meager resources available. There is a desperate need for help. Fortunately for the present situation many aid agencies are already here.

I have to pay a special tribute to Bishop John and the leadership he is providing. Since I have been here he has been working tirelessly to help and support the people in need. He had an important service last Sunday – an ordination that should have been followed by a reception outside. Plans to hold the service in the open and the reception were cancelled because of the number of refugees he was accommodating in and around the cathedral. The dormitories of his own guest facilities were a seething mass of people, and every available room was used for sleeping.

 The church here reflects the poverty of its people. They do not have money to give the church so the church does not have money. However, the Bishop is working in faith that he will get the resources he needs from somewhere, and is spending whatever he needs to at present. Please pray for him, that his health may hold good, and that he may have the needed resources."

Pictures by A Hobson and by Thomas, who works for Lutheran Aid. 

Back to main page!

Two of the Past articles:- 
23 July 2001= Come & Give For Rwanda.
17 October 2001 = Rwandan Crier visits Formby to say thank you.

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