How one family survived a volcano, hundreds of earthquakes, and a missing 6-year-old over 14 hellish days in eastern Congo

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An aerial photograph, taken on June 4, 2021, shows Mt Nyiragongo and the lava that flowed into the northern districts of Goma during the May 22 eruption.

  • Mt. Nyiragongo erupted on May 22, triggering earthquakes and a chaotic evacuation of Goma – a city of 2 million in eastern Congo.
  • Amid the exodus, hundreds of children were separated from their families, including 6-year-old Elie.
  • This is the story of how one family made it through a hellish series of natural disasters in one of the most vulnerable places on earth.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

When Mount Nyiragongo erupted in eastern Congo on May 22, there was no warning.

On that first night, as the lava flowed towards the city of Goma, it covered 13 villages and wiped out 3,629 homes, before coming to a halt half a mile from the city’s airport and less than two miles from one of its central markets. At least 37 people have been reported dead.

Nyiragongo is one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes – it last erupted 19 years ago – and its presence 10 miles from Goma casts a perennial shadow over the city. And yet, even since the 2002 eruption, which buried large patches of Goma in volcanic rock, the city’s population has swelled, largely as a consequence of the violent conflicts in the surrounding area, pushing hundreds of thousands to seek refuge in Goma.

Goma, the largest city in the region, has over the last two decades become a hub for the United Nations and countless humanitarian agencies and the economic opportunities that have come with the international presence. The city’s geographic proximity to the region’s mining riches, and its location just over the border from Rwanda, made it even more attractive to the entrepreneurial. In the calm years, Nyiragongo has come to be something of a tourist draw: travelers who come to Goma on their way to see mountain gorillas in the nearby Virunga National Park sometimes include a hike up Nyiragongo as part of their itinerary.

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People find shelter in a church in Sake, forced to evacuate their homes after Nyiragongo’s eruption. Half of those who have fled are children, according to UNICEF.

Now, two weeks after the initial eruption, the immediate danger from Mount Nyiragongo seems to have passed, and Goma’s residents are now faced with putting their lives back together.

For one of Goma’s residents, 40-year-old Moise Lukusha, it has been two weeks of misery and uncertainty.

On the first night, Elie, his 6-year-old son, went missing.

A frantic exodus

Lukusha was downtown when he learned of the eruption; as panic overtook Goma’s residents, he rushed home.

Two of his children -Elie, 6, and Gedeon, 9 – had been watching television in the living room when the eruption began, and everyone started to run. They went outside and got swept away in the crowds.

By the time Lukusha reached their home, Elie and Gedeon were gone.

Lukusha thought they might have gone to Sake, 15 miles away. Goma sits between Lake Kivu and Congo’s eastern border with Rwanda and, for those fleeing on foot, Sake was one of the only places to go. And so, Lukusha joined the thousands of people making their way to Sake.

But neither boy was there.

Gedeon had ended up aboard a truck taking people, free of charge, to another city, Masisi, about 50 miles northwest. There, a kind-hearted stranger took him in for three days, until she could arrange to have him ride in a car back to Goma. Back in the city, Gedeon knew his way back home.

But Elie did not turn up – not at their home in Goma, not in Sake, not in any of the reunification centers that had been set up for unaccompanied children.

“I lost my son and I’m still looking for him,” Lukusha texted, days later.

“The conditions were inhumane”

When the lava flow stopped early the next morning, people, fearing that their homes might be looted, began returning to Goma. All the while, earthquakes regularly shook the city. By the morning of May 25, the Goma Volcano Observatory had recorded 269 earthquakes since the eruption.

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Goma residents are seen fleeing on May 28, 2021 after an evacuation order from provincial authorities.

The highest magnitude reached 5.2 on the Richter scale, bringing down several buildings and homes.

Large cracks appeared in the ground, some snaking across main roads in central Goma. The tremors also damaged water distribution systems that had already been compromised by the lava flow, leaving 550,000 people without access to potable water. The local head of the French aid group Doctors Without Borders warned that residents were at a high risk of cholera.

Worse still, there were warnings of the potential for a second volcanic eruption and the explosion of deadly methane and carbon dioxide gases from Lake Kivu, which could kill hundreds of thousands within minutes.

On Thursday, May 27 – five days after the eruption – the local governor of North Kivu province ordered the mandatory evacuation of 10 of Goma’s 15 neighborhoods.

The announcement sparked an even bigger exodus than the first one.

Over the next 24 hours, over 400,000 people – nearly a quarter of Goma’s population – left the city on foot, on motos, on boats, or in cars, using the few available roads. Again, most headed towards Sake, causing a complete traffic blockage on the westbound road. Once the lava was cleared from the northbound road, others headed towards Rutshuru territory. A third flow of people went across the border to the east, into Rwanda. Yet a fourth run of people piled into boats and traversed 130 km to the southern tip of Lake Kivu, to seek refuge in Bukavu, the capital of neighboring South Kivu province.

The largest portion of the exodus, in the direction of Sake, included 100 armored vehicles and military trucks transporting hundreds of UN peacekeepers that had also been ordered to evacuate their bases. A separate convoy of 53 UN trucks carrying 250 staff and 1200 of their dependents would continue past Sake, and head south to Bukabu over land. With favorable weather and a Landcruiser, the 100 km journey along dirt roads could be traversed in 7 hours. With the evacuation traffic blockade, however, it took the UN convoy 40 hours to complete.

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Waiting at an aid distribution site in Sake.

In Sake alone, a town with a population of 70,000, over 180,000 people arrived that Friday, including Moise, his wife and six of his children. From Kinshasa – the country’s capital, situated on the opposite end of the country’s vast geographical stretch across the African continent, and accessible only by plane – the government’s spokesman said that people fleeing to Sake should not expect more than “a minimum comfort.”

“Those that will go to Sake will not find the comfort they had in their homes because they are going to a zone that isn’t specially arranged to receive them,” Patrick Muyaya Katembwe, the spokesman, said at a press conference.

Sure enough, Lukusha and his family found no aid distributions when they arrived. The family slept outside, and food and basic goods were difficult to find or afford.

Marcelin, Moise’s 24-year-old step-son, said corn that would normally cost between 100 and 300 francs, was selling for 1000 francs in Sake. In a report detailing the situation, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs attributed the price increases to the near halt in economic activities in Goma and the massive spike in demand.

For most Congolese, 73 percent of whom live under the international poverty line of $1.90 per day, the costs in Sake were crippling. “Even to go to the toilet, we had to pay,” Lukusha would later say. The fee – 1500 Congolese francs, the equivalent of nearly 1 US dollar – was exorbitant.

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Moise Lukusha and his 3-year old son Eli near to their home in Goma.

“The way we lived in Sake, it was a nightmare,” Lukusha said. “The conditions were inhumane.”

Meanwhile, Lukusha was still searching for six-year-old Elie, going back and forth between Goma, Sake, and the other towns where people were seeking refuge. After days of this, he recalls sitting with his family on a soccer field in Sake amid crowds of evacuees, feeling certain that he would not see his boy again.

“The little means I had, I finished it all off searching for little Elie, to go to Minova, Masisi, Bweremana, everywhere. I lost everything I had,” he said.

False alarms and a city on edge

According to the International Organization for Migration, by Tuesday, June 1, about 160,000 of the 400,000 people displaced since the eruption of the volcano had already returned to their homes. They cited reasons that included unacceptable conditions in the refuge sites, a decrease in the magnitude and frequency of earthquakes, and fears that their abandoned homes would be looted.

Families scattered in the chaos of the evacuations were also gradually reunited. Of the 1,340 children reported missing, all but 332 are back with their families,, according to UNICEF and its partners.

All the while, the government continued issuing statements warning people to stay out of the “red zones,” saying that earthquakes were still happening daily even if not all of them were felt. On June 1st, for example, the Goma Volcano Observatory recorded 71 tremors, the majority of which were not felt by the population. Moreover, surface deformations indicated potential movement of magma under the city of Goma itself, and possibly Lake Kivu.

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From left to right, Gédéon, 9, Eli, 6, and two siblings at home on June 3rd, 2021. When the volcano erupted on May 22nd, the children fled. Eli went missing for 8 days.

Further confusing the general population, the Rwanda Environmental Management Authority’s Lake Kivu monitoring team on Monday May 31, concluded that there is no imminent risk of gas explosions from Lake Kivu. But the local observatory was saying that lethal explosions were still a possibility.

There were also false alarms, further unnerving the battered population. There were also false alarms, further unnerving the battered population. Muyaya, the spokesman from the national government in Kinshasa, tweeted – and then deleted – that there had been an eruption “of weak intensity” at Mount Nyamulagira, another nearby volcano. Aerial surveillance soon confirmed that there had not, in fact, been an eruption. It was only smoke rising from charcoal production, a very common sight in the region.

Despite the ongoing evacuation order, Lukusha and his family were among those who had returned to Goma. That Sunday evening – eight days after the eruption – Lukusha was sitting in his living room when he looked up to see Elie at his doorstep, holding the hand of a stranger.

He pulled the boy into his arms. And, soon enough, Lukusha finally learned what had happened to his son over their long week of separation.

“Stay vigilant, stay vigilant”

In the chaos that broke out on the evening of the volcanic eruption, Elie had followed the crowd heading west, towards Sake. Near Mugunga, one of the neighborhoods in the outskirts of Goma, he followed people into the hills, where he fell asleep for the night.

The next morning, he continued through the wealthy neighborhood of Himbi, passing near the home that once belonged to Congo’s infamous dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. “The little one was truly tired, his feet swollen,” Lukusha would say, recounting the story as he’d been able to piece it together. “He slept by the entrance to a gated property.”

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An aerial photo taken on June 4, 2021, shows path cleared through the lava stream that stopped 700 meters short of the Goma airport runway, and the central districts just beyond. Lake Kivu, posing threats of deadly gas explosions, is visible in the distance.

That’s where the owner of the home found him. The man assumed that Elie was a street kld and, taking pity on him, brought him some avocados, bread and a bottle of water.

The story then took a bizarre turn, according to what the man told Lukusha: the man decided he would adopt Elie.

The idea, though, quickly fell apart. At church that Sunday, the man said his pastor advised him that Elie’s parents were likely feeling frantic as they searched for their missing son.

“This, while we were searching for the child, going up to the center of Masisi, Minova, Bweremana, everywhere,” Lukusha said, incredulous.

Insider was unable to confirm the details of the story, and the pastor could not immediately be reached. Lukusha said it appeared that Elie – reunited with his siblings as they played in their home in Goma – was doing well.

For most of the city, this is still a time of limbo. It’s not clear what the recovery will look like, or how long it will take to get back to some semblance of normalcy.

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Children walk through a solidified lava in Goma after the May 22 eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano.

There is also suspicion that the central government, 1000 miles away in Kinshasa, might be dragging out the relief effort in this long-neglected part of the country to maximize the political currency that comes with delivering help. On Saturday, June 6, just hours after Goma’s international airport was reopened, the country’s prime minister Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde touched ground with much fanfare, making a rare visit to the unstable but mineral-rich eastern part of the country.

As for Goma, it’s not yet clear if the city is truly safe yet.

“They say the city of Goma is still in danger. We don’t know if it’s true,” said Marcelin, Lukusha’s step-son. “Really we have no idea what is happening in our city because they send us [text] messages ‘stay vigilant, stay vigilant’ but I don’t even know if that means there was a second volcanic eruption.”

“Really,” he said, “I have no idea.”

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Luxury ships from the Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise lines sail to the rescue and evacuate islanders in the path of a volcano eruption

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La Soufrière last erupted in 1979.

  • Royal Caribbean International and Carnival Cruise sent ships to the Caribbean island Saint Vincent.
  • The ships helped to evacuate northern areas of the island after La Soufrière threatened to erupt.
  • Saint Vincent’s National Emergency Management Organisation later tweeted that the volcano did erupt.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Ships from both Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International sailed to the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent to help evacuate people from the volcano’s imminent eruption named La Soufrière.

The Caribbean island went into red alert on Thursday, with Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves ordering an evacuation of all northern districts of the island, which has a population of approximately 100,000.

The northern areas are home to around 16,000 people. All have been ordered to leave immediately as they were in the direct path of lava flow and literal fire from the volcano.

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Northern areas of Saint Vincent were evacuated.

However, commercial cruise ships came to the rescue. Carnival Cruise Line sent two ships – Carnival Legend and Carnival Paradise – to the island on Friday. Royal Caribbean International also sent two ships – Serenade of the Seas and Celebrity Reflection. They arrived on Friday evening, with a third expected to arrive in the coming days.

Each ship is expected to take on board up to 1500 people. They will be transported to neighboring islands who have agreed to house them, according to Travel Weekly.

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Carnival Cruise and Royal Caribbean both sent cruise ships to Saint Vincent to help with the evacuation.

On Thursday, as reported by the Saint Vincent online newspaper News 784, Geologist Richard Robertson said that La Soufrière could erupt at any given time in a matter of days or even hours as the volcano has been increasingly active since November.

Monitoring stations also reported long earthquakes, which suggested that magma was attempting to reach the surface, meaning the volcano was ready to transition to an explosive stage.

On Friday, Saint Vincent’s National Emergency Management Organisation (NEMO) tweeted that the volcano had indeed “moved into an explosive stage” and erupted.

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Citizens watching ash plumes from La Soufrière.

“Ash fall recorded as far as Argyle International Airport,” NEMO tweeted, writing that ash plumes were recorded up to 20,000 feet.

Six hours after this, NEMO tweeted that a “second explosive eruption” had occurred, although it was smaller than the first.

“Vincentians are waking up to extremely heavy ashfall and strong sulfur smells which have now advanced to the capital,” NEMO tweeted. There have been no reported casualties as of yet.

La Soufrière last erupted in April 1979. There were no casualties, and the local population was successfully evacuated.

The volcano’s deadliest eruption was in 1902, when 1600 people (predominantly indigenous Caribs) were killed. Shortly after that eruption, Martinique’s Mount Pelee also erupted and destroyed the town of Saint-Pierre. More than 30,000 people died as a result.

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Photos show crowds gathering in Iceland to witness long-dormant volcano eruption

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Weekend hikers took the opportunity Sunday to inspect the area where a volcano erupted in Iceland on March 19

  • A long-dormant volcano near Reykjavik in Iceland erupted slow-moving lava starting last week.
  • Crowds of visitors made the trek beginning last weekend to witness the molten lava.
  • This is the first time in 800 years the area has seen a volcanic eruption.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.
A long-dormant volcano that erupted about 25 miles from Reykjavik has continued to draw large crowds this week.

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People watch and take photos as lava flows from an eruption of a volcano on the Reykjanes Peninsula in southwestern Iceland on Tuesday, March 23, 2021.

The volcano is located on the Reykjanes Peninsula, near Iceland’s capital city.

The area hasn’t seen a volcanic eruption in nearly 800 years, according to the Associated Press.

 

Lava first began to flow from the volcano Friday night, after tens of thousands of earthquakes were recorded in the area in recent weeks.

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Lava flows from an eruption of a volcano on the Reykjanes Peninsula in southwestern Iceland on Saturday, March 20, 2021.

An increase in seismic activity is often a precursor to an impending eruption, Insider’s Joshua Zitser reported earlier this week. 

The Icelandic Meteorological Office said Saturday “lava fountains are small and lava flows are currently a very local hazard.”

 

The eruption is known as an effusive eruption, which is when magma rises through the surface and lava slowly flows out of the volcano’s fissures.

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Iceland’s latest volcano eruption is quickly attracting crowds of people hoping to get close to the gentle lava flows.

Effusive eruptions are different from explosive eruptions, which see magma torn apart as it rises to the surface, often sending up clouds of ash and disrupting air travel. 

This weekend’s eruption has not affected air travel or led to any reported injuries.

The eruption is not seen as a threat to towns nearby, according to the AP, and the steady flow of lava means people can get fairly close to the volcano without much risk — a move more and more visitors have been taking in recent days.

 

 

Police told residents living nearby to close their windows and stay indoors on Saturday, according to Al Jazeera. But that didn’t stop dozens of weekend hikers from taking in the sight.

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Sunday hikers look at the lava flowing from the erupting Fagradalsfjall volcano some 40 km west of the Icelandic capital Reykjavik, on March 21, 2021.

According to the AP, Iceland’s civil protection officials were seen motioning some visitors away from the lava on Tuesday to make sure nobody got hurt. 

One of the officials told the outlet a person had tried to cook eggs and bacon on the lava but lava melted the pan.

 

Hikers’ parked cars stretched along the roadside.

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A long line of parked cars left along the roadside by hikers flocking to the area to get a look at the lava flowing from the erupting Fagradalsfjall volcano some 40 km west of the Icelandic capital Reykjavik, on March 23, 2021

The eruption sent a red shimmer into the Icelandic sky Saturday night.

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A view of volcano eruption in Geldingadalur on the Reykjanes peninsula in Iceland on March 21, 2021.

According to the AP, the glow of the lava could be seen nearly 20 miles away from the outskirts of Reykjavik. 

The striking red glimmer could be seen rising behind the President of Iceland’s official residence in Reykjavik.

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The red shimmer from lava flowing from the erupting Fagradalsfjall volcano rise behind the Bessastadir, the official residence of the President of Iceland seen from the Icelandic capital Reykjavik,

Those who got an up-close view of the flowing lava were amazed.

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Sunday hikers look at the lava flowing from the erupting Fagradalsfjall volcano some 40 km west of the Icelandic capital Reykjavik, on March 21, 2021.

“I’ve been waiting for many years to see an eruption in Iceland,” Italian photographer Vincenzo Mazza told the AP. “I saw some eruptions in Italy, like Etna and Stromboli, but this is absolutely different.”

 

The end of the weekend didn’t deter visitors from streaming in to witness the natural beauty Monday and Tuesday.

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Weekend hikers took the opportunity Sunday to inspect the area where a volcano erupted in Iceland on March 19.

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The biggest volcano eruptions in recorded history

  • The Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) ranks volcano eruptions by size and power.
  • The scale goes from VEI-0 to VEI-8 and measures ash, lava, and rock ejected.
  • VEI-1 is a gentle eruption that can happen frequently. Italy’s Mt. Stromboli has been erupting almost continuously for 2,000 years.
  • VEI-6s are colossal eruptions every 100 years. The 1883 explosion of Krakatoa was the most famous of these.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories. 

Following is a transcript of the video.

Earth has had a dramatic history, filled with its share of angry outbursts. Here’s how the largest volcanic eruptions measure up.

The Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) ranks eruptions by size and power. The scale goes from VEI-0 to VEI-8. It measures ash, lava, and rock ejected.

VEI-0 are usually a steady trickle of lava instead of an explosion. An example is the Hawaiian volcano of Kīlauea.

Next is VEI-1, a gentle eruption that can happen frequently. Italy’s Mt. Stromboli has been erupting almost continuously for 2,000 years.

VEI-2s consist of several mild explosions a month. Indonesia’s Mount Sinabung has been erupting since 2013.

VEI-3 are catastrophic eruptions that happen every few months. Lassen Peak in Northern California had a VEI-3 in 1915.

VEI-4s happen about every other year. In 2010, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull grounded thousands of flights.

At VEI-5 things start getting more dramatic. Both Mt. Vesuvius (79 AD) and Mt. St. Helens (1980) were VEI-5s.

VEI-6s are colossal eruptions every 100 years. The 1883 explosion of Krakatoa was the most famous of these.

VEI-7 eruptions occur every 1,000 years. The most recent was Indonesia’s Mt. Tambora in 1815.

VEI-8 is a devastating explosive eruption every 50,000 years. The Yellowstone Caldera would reach this level if it were to erupt.

Let’s all just keep our cool.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published on November 1, 2017.

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