After one of Africa’s most dangerous volcanoes – Mount Nyiragongo – sent fast-moving lava towards Goma, the largest city in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in May, international aid groups rushed supplies to half a million people who had been displaced.
But nearly four months on, an estimated 30,000 people remain in makeshift camps, with some pointing to what they see as long delays in receiving aid in a tightly controlled, government-led relief effort. Lists of disaster victims put together by the government took weeks to finalise, aid workers from international agencies said. Local officials have also postponed moves into newly constructed shelters for the displaced while blocking some aid groups from providing assistance at the camps, the workers added.
“It is difficult to survive,” said Pascaziya Kahumba, who lives with five children in a tent made of scraps of cloth and plastic in Bujuri – one of roughly a dozen ad hoc displacement camps on the outskirts of Goma and in neighbouring Nyiragongo territory.
The Congolese government took charge of the response amid considerable media attention. On a trip to Goma in June, President Félix Tshisekedi told residents in need of aid: “We will never leave you”. Torn posters celebrating his arrival still hang on billboards around the city.
Some aid agencies have stepped back as the government made promises to distribute food and other relief supplies at the camps, staff said. Several senior aid officials with international organisations also told The New Humanitarian that they consider the emergency a low priority compared to other crises in eastern Congo.
The New Humanitarian spoke to 17 officials from local and international aid organisations working on the response. Six of those requested anonymity for fear of reprisals after publicly criticising the government.
At least 30 people died and thousands lost their homes after the Mount Nyiragongo eruption, which hit Goma’s northern fringes before stopping just short of its international airport. An eruption in 2002 covered a fifth of Goma in lava and left 250 people dead.
The city is home to 1.5 million people and is also a hub for international aid organisations that work across Congo’s eastern provinces, where conflict has displaced more than a million people so far this year and left large areas facing “crisis” levels of food insecurity.
Dozens of agencies responded in the aftermath of the eruption, which saw people flee Goma en masse. Since June, many aid groups have also been supporting those who returned to the city to live in makeshift sites where basic services have been set up.
Still, conditions in the camps are bleak, with limited water and hygiene services. Most residents have built tents with whatever materials they could find – leaves, tarpaulin, and bits of cloth.
Though local foundations and church groups have provided ad hoc food supplies for camp residents, international organisations distributed food to the sites only once in late August, an aid official and displaced people who spoke with The New Humanitarian said.
Most of the aid officials interviewed by The New Humanitarian blamed poor conditions and delays on the Congolese authorities, who have only recently finalised lists of people entitled to receive assistance and be transferred to better-built shelters – constructed at two sites by military personnel and aid groups.
When asked about the slow aid delivery, Raymond Efoya, a Congolese official helping coordinate the response for the ministry of humanitarian affairs as director of general services and human resources, blamed problems on the camp residents themselves. He said some were only posing as volcano victims to receive assistance, slowing down efforts to produce the lists and undermining plans to transfer people to the shelters.
“There was nothing left. We just saw stones.”
Camp residents who spoke with The New Humanitarian said that they have nowhere to go while awaiting help. Fields of lava still blanket their neighbourhoods, where the smell of sulfur sticks to the air and heat rises from the ground. Building materials to construct homes elsewhere have not been provided by the government or aid groups, they say.
“There was nothing left,” said Vumilya Sinwatu, a resident of one of the camps in Goma, who described discovering her home and belongings destroyed after the eruption. “We just saw stones”.
Slow lists and blocked aid
Located on a tectonic divide known as the East African Rift, Mount Nyiragongo is considered one of the region’s most dangerous volcanoes due to its proximity to Goma and the speed of its lava.
The 22 May eruption triggered hundreds of earthquakes as well as warnings of further eruptions in the city centre and its adjacent lake, which contains vast amounts of trapped carbon dioxide that could suffocate residents if released.
Fearing the worst, on 27 May, Congolese authorities ordered the partial evacuation of Goma, while aid groups pulled non-essential staff from the city. A second eruption never came, however, and the earthquakes eventually slowed.
When residents returned to Goma in early June – many using government-provided transport – the vast majority went back to their homes. But 40,000 remained displaced as of late August, of which more than 30,000 have been living in spontaneous camps, according to a UNHCR situation report which cites local authorities.
Nzuba Mbhoko and her six children were sleeping on the splintered floor of a school classroom in Kahembe when they spoke to The New Humanitarian in July. Some 160 other people shared the space, which had no front door and offered no privacy.
Sixteen-year-old Francine Bahati has been raising a child alone, without a tent to live in, after giving birth in August. Mother and son – who cries all night, Bahati said – both sleep on the cement floor of a gazebo with a leaky roof made of rotting wood and sheet-metal.
After Tshisekedi’s visit to Goma, the government pledged to provide 1,000 temporary shelters, to be constructed by the military at a camp called Kanyarucinya. The International Federation of the Red Cross agreed to contribute 500 additional structures at another site, Kibati.
Some aid workers who spoke with The New Humanitarian questioned whether enough shelters have been built. The structures can house around 7,500 people – fewer than the number of people currently living in the camps, according to the UNHCR situation report.
Though the shelters were finished several weeks ago – and lists of who will move into them are now finalised – the relocation process has not begun, aid officials and nearly a dozen camp residents confirmed to The New Humanitarian this week. Heavy rains, meanwhile, destroyed more than 100 new shelters at Kanyarucinya last month.
One senior aid official working on the response said the delay is caused by the government’s desire to officially inaugurate the camps, showing that it has responded to the crisis efficiently. The official described the hold up as “political”.
Another senior aid official from an international organisation working on the response said the government had requested that they pause distributions in the camps for weeks on end while efforts to finish the lists and relocate displaced people were being finalised.
In July, the senior official showed The New Humanitarian storerooms piled high with unused jerry cans, blankets, and cooking supplies intended for camp residents. “Nothing is done without permission from the government,” said the official, who confirmed this week that the storerooms remain full.
Spokespeople for two other international aid organisations – OXFAM and Tearfund – said they had readied aid for distribution when people move to the new shelters, though neither confirmed when that might be when asked in recent weeks.
A ‘highly political’ response
Though the government-led response is supported by several aid agencies – in particular the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA – other aid groups have played a lesser role than they might normally.
Jackie Keegan, who heads the Goma office of the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, said the agency and other humanitarian actors considered several short-term shelter options for displaced people but opted to pursue other interventions following “consultations with the government”. The agency will soon start a cash-for-rent programme, and plans to support rebuilding efforts once land title matters are resolved, Keegan added.
“We are going to focus our resources where we can have an impact at scale.”
Erwan Rumen, a coordinator in eastern Congo for the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), said the food agency was willing to support the displacement sites but stepped back when the government said it had food available to deliver – food that displaced people interviewed by The New Humanitarian said they have not received.
“This [response] is small, highly political, and highly sensitive,” Rumen said during an interview in his Goma office. “If people want our support they know where we are, and they can come to us. If they don’t need our support they won’t ask, and we are going to focus our resources where we can have an impact at scale.”
Funding is also proving a challenge for some NGOs. German aid group Welthungerhilfe, which was providing water in the camps, said it had run out of money in August, while Swiss NGO HEKS/EPER said its funds for water and sanitation services would end this month, though it hopes to get more.
When asked about the response, one senior UN official who spoke to The New Humanitarian described the crisis as “the least of their problems” given the scale of other disasters in the country.
Rumen of WFP said “3,000 additional families starving in Goma is nothing,” citing existing levels of food insecurity that affect roughly one in five people in the city. “There are massively bigger priorities that are less sensitive and less political on which I prefer to focus,” Rumen added.
Furuha Ndamira, a resident of one of the camps, said food shortages have forced her to eat weeds, while a lack of water means she must queue for hours at a communal tank. “There is no life at all [here],” Ndamira said.
Local organisations, church groups, and prominent public figures have stepped in to fill some of the gaps over the past months. They have provided occasional distributions of blankets, mattresses, and food bundles. But camp residents say it hasn't been enough.
Many displaced people said they would like to rebuild their homes but are warned not to cross the lava. Several who have visited the sites of their former homes told The New Humanitarian they felt unwell afterwards, complaining of headaches and skin rashes.
The most they could do, they said, was hastily mark the outlines of where their homes once stood and break down volcanic rocks into gravel in the hope of earning a few dollars.
Frustration with the response is growing among camp residents, some of whom suffered after previous eruptions of Mount Nyiragongo, which looms over their tents and all of Goma.
Ninety-one-year-old Anna Nyirabikuba said she lost everything when the volcano erupted in 2002, before history repeated itself this year. In June, she moved to Kahembe camp, where she now sleeps under pieces of tarpaulin and cloth propped up by sticks.
Her name, she said last month, is not on the list of people chosen by the government to move into the new shelters.
With local reporting and research from an individual whose name is being withheld due to security concerns. Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.