Goma, North Kivu, May 22 2021. At night, residents flee the eruption of Nyiragongo volcano. This image was among the first that Fondation Carmignac’s Congo in Conversation contributor Guerchom Ndebo filed to Agence France-Presse within hours of the eruption and it was widely published internationally. © Guerchom Ndebo for Fondation Carmignac.

Covering Nyiragongo volcano's eruption

Goma, June 2, 2021
Reading time: 16 min

Guerchom Ndebo was relaxing at home on the evening of May 22nd when a friend called to ask him to go up on his roof. “The volcano is really glowing tonight, go and take a picture for me,” his friend told him. When the photographer climbed up the concrete stairwell to the roof of his four-storey apartment building in the eastern Congolese city of Goma, it looked like the sky was on fire.

On the street below, crowds of people were streaming past carrying belongings. Within minutes, news spread that Nyiragongo volcano was erupting for the first time in nearly two decades. A river of lava was pouring downhill in the direction of Ndebo’s neighbourhood. He ran back down to his apartment, and grabbed his camera gear and headed out the door to shoot. But he quickly turned around, realizing he’d forgotten the memory card. He bolted out again, but had to return twice more for his camera strap, and for a bag with his computer.

“It was stressful and I couldn’t think straight at first, but then once I started photographing, I felt more calm and focused,” Ndebo said. “It confirmed that photography is the right job for me.”

Goma, Nord-Kivu, 22 mai 2021. Le Nyiragongo entre en éruption. Guerchom Ndebo pour la Fondation Carmignac.
Goma, North Kivu, May 22 2021. Nyiragongo volcano erupts. © Guerchom Ndebo for Fondation Carmignac.

Across town, Arlette Bashizi and Moses Sawasawa were on a bus returning from taking photos for a story they were working on when they too saw the glowing sky. Bashizi rushed home to check on her family and urged Sawasawa to do likewise.

I (Finbarr O' Reilly, Editor's note) was at a lakeside restaurant when a man entered and announced the news of the eruption. Planning a night off, I had left my cameras on the other side of town and only had a small mirrorless camera with me. I hopped on a motorcycle taxi and rushed to meet Ndebo in the center of town, where thousands of confused residents were rushing in various directions, hauling with them bags of belongings, mattresses, livestock, and frightened children. The last eruption in 2002 destroyed one third of the city, killed more than 200 people, and left more than 100,000 people homeless.

Goma, North Kivu, May 22 2021. At night, residents flee the eruption of Nyiragongo volcano. © Finbarr O’Reilly for Fondation Carmignac
Goma, North Kivu, May 22 2021. At night, residents flee the eruption of Nyiragongo volcano. © Finbarr O’Reilly for Fondation Carmignac
Goma, North Kivu, May 22 2021. At night, residents flee the eruption of Nyiragongo volcano. © Moses Sawasawa for Fondation Carmignac
Goma, North Kivu, May 22 2021. At night, residents flee the eruption of Nyiragongo volcano. © Moses Sawasawa for Fondation Carmignac
Goma, North Kivu, May 22 2021. At night, residents flee the eruption of Nyiragongo volcano. © Finbarr O’Reilly for Fondation Carmignac
Goma, North Kivu, May 22 2021. At night, residents flee the eruption of Nyiragongo volcano. © Finbarr O’Reilly for Fondation Carmignac
Goma, North Kivu, May 22 2021. At night, residents flee the eruption of Nyiragongo volcano. © Finbarr O’Reilly for Fondation Carmignac
Goma, North Kivu, May 22 2021. At night, residents flee the eruption of Nyiragongo volcano. © Finbarr O’Reilly for Fondation Carmignac

Sawasawa joined me and Ndebo shortly afterwards and together we documented the chaos of the panicked exodus from town. With conflicting information, people were begging to know which direction to flee – east across the border to Rwanda, or west toward higher ground near the town of Sake.

The glowing wall of lava from Mount Nyiragongo, one of the world’s most active and dangerous volcanos, stopped just short of the city center and Goma’s international airport, but destroyed 17 villages and left at least thirty-two people dead. Up to 20,000 people lost their homes. Many people returned to town the following morning once the lava had stopped flowing, but several hundred aftershocks in the following days kept residents on edge. Panic ensued again five days after the initial eruption when the government issued a midnight order to evacuate much of the city for fear of another eruption. There was also the threat of a rare limnic eruption. Lake Kivu holds vast underwater gas reserves of both carbon dioxide and methane. If released by an earthquake or contact with molten lava, the gases could explode or unleash vast poisonous clouds that would kill any living being within dozens of kilometers. This time, nearly half a million people fled to Rwanda and the town of Sake, 20 kilometers west of Goma, where there are few facilities to accommodate the displaced. Some 1,361 children were separated from their parents during the chaos and the Red Cross and UNICEF worked to reunite families.

Smoke, fumes, and dust from a rockfall inside the crater of Mount Nyamulagira in eastern Democratic of Congo on Sunday May 30, eight days after the eruption of the adjacent Mount Nyiragongo forced the evacuation of much of the nearby city of Goma and left 32 people dead and 20,000 homeless. © Finbarr O’Reilly for Fondation Carmignac
Smoke, fumes, and dust from a rockfall inside the crater of Mount Nyamulagira in eastern Democratic of Congo on Sunday May 30, eight days after the eruption of the adjacent Mount Nyiragongo forced the evacuation of much of the nearby city of Goma and left 32 people dead and 20,000 homeless. © Finbarr O’Reilly for Fondation Carmignac
Smoke, fumes, and dust from a rockfall inside the crater of Mount Nyamulagira in eastern Democratic of Congo on Sunday May 30, eight days after the eruption of the adjacent Mount Nyiragongo forced the evacuation of much of the nearby city of Goma and left 32 people dead and 20,000 homeless. © Finbarr O’Reilly for Fondation Carmignac
Smoke, fumes, and dust from a rockfall inside the crater of Mount Nyamulagira in eastern Democratic of Congo on Sunday May 30, eight days after the eruption of the adjacent Mount Nyiragongo forced the evacuation of much of the nearby city of Goma and left 32 people dead and 20,000 homeless. © Finbarr O’Reilly for Fondation Carmignac
Smoke, fumes, and dust from a rockfall inside the crater of Mount Nyamulagira in eastern Democratic of Congo on Sunday May 30, eight days after the eruption of the adjacent Mount Nyiragongo forced the evacuation of much of the nearby city of Goma and left 32 people dead and 20,000 homeless. © Finbarr O’Reilly for Fondation Carmignac
Smoke, fumes, and dust from a rockfall inside the crater of Mount Nyamulagira in eastern Democratic of Congo on Sunday May 30, eight days after the eruption of the adjacent Mount Nyiragongo forced the evacuation of much of the nearby city of Goma and left 32 people dead and 20,000 homeless. © Finbarr O’Reilly for Fondation Carmignac

More than 232,400 people were displaced to Sake, Rutshuru, Lubero, Minova and Bukavu, and half a million displaced were without clean drinking water as the few humanitarian agencies that remained operational struggled to meet the needs of so many who had fled with few possessions.

In the neighborhood of Buhene, which was covered by lava on the night of the eruption, schoolteacher Judith Kyakimwe-Meso, 33, pointed to where her schoolhouse and her home used to stand. “My house was on this hill here beside those burning trees,” she said while overlooking the charred landscape still smoldering almost a week after the eruption. “Now my two children and I have nothing, it’s all gone. We are hungry and thirsty but have no money to go anywhere. We should have just died because now we can just die slowly instead of quickly in the lava.”

© Moses Sawasawa for Fondation Carmignac

Throughout the crisis, Congo in Conversation contributors worked together, sharing information and security advice, as well as camera equipment and laptops, while covering unfolding events for various global media outlets and humanitarian agencies.

North Kivu, 23 May 2021. People flee in a moment of panic as an aftershock hits the neighbourhood of Buhene the morning after the eruption. © Finbarr O’Reilly for Fondation Carmignac
North Kivu, 23 May 2021. People flee in a moment of panic as an aftershock hits the neighbourhood of Buhene the morning after the eruption. © Finbarr O’Reilly for Fondation Carmignac
North Kivu, 23 May 2021. People cross the cooling lava flow in search of a safe place to stay while others transport goods to the market in Goma two days after the eruption. © Guerchom Ndebo for Fondation Carmignac
North Kivu, 23 May 2021. People cross the cooling lava flow in search of a safe place to stay while others transport goods to the market in Goma two days after the eruption. © Guerchom Ndebo for Fondation Carmignac
North Kivu, 23 May 2021. People cross the cooling lava flow in search of a safe place to stay while others transport goods to the market in Goma two days after the eruption. © Guerchom Ndebo for Fondation Carmignac
North Kivu, 23 May 2021. People cross the cooling lava flow in search of a safe place to stay while others transport goods to the market in Goma two days after the eruption. © Guerchom Ndebo for Fondation Carmignac
North Kivu, 23 May 2021. People cross the cooling lava flow in search of a safe place to stay while others transport goods to the market in Goma two days after the eruption. © Guerchom Ndebo for Fondation Carmignac
North Kivu, 23 May 2021. People cross the cooling lava flow in search of a safe place to stay while others transport goods to the market in Goma two days after the eruption. © Guerchom Ndebo for Fondation Carmignac

Within hours of the eruption, Ndebo and Sawasawa were filing a steady stream of images to editors at Agence France-Presse. Their photographs were widely published around the world, including by National Geographic, Time Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Al Jazeera. Moses Sawasawa also worked for The Associated Press in the days immediately after the eruption and was later hired by MSF to document relief efforts. I also reported for The New York Times.

Beyond the breaking news, Arlette Bashizi and Bernadette Vivuya were hired by UNICEF to cover the humanitarian situation. Ley Uwera’s work was featured in The New Humanitarian while Clarice Butsapu’s work was also published by the AP.

North Kivu, 23 May 2021. A boy carrying a Chukudu, or wooden bike, surveys lava cooling in the Buhene neighborhood after the eruption of Nyiragongo volcano. © Moses Sawasawa for Fondation Carmignac
North Kivu, 23 May 2021. A boy carrying a Chukudu, or wooden bike, surveys lava cooling in the Buhene neighborhood after the eruption of Nyiragongo volcano. © Moses Sawasawa for Fondation Carmignac
North Kivu, 23 May 2021. On the morning after the eruption Congo in Conversation photographer Guerchom Ndebo continued to file photographs for Agence France-Press, including this image of people crossing lava still smouldering and releasing noxious gases as it cools.
North Kivu, 23 May 2021. On the morning after the eruption Congo in Conversation photographer Guerchom Ndebo continued to file photographs for Agence France-Press, including this image of people crossing lava still smouldering and releasing noxious gases as it cools.
North Kivu, 23 May 2021. Congo in Conversation contributor Moses Sawasawa was also filing pictures to Agence France-Press, including this image of the main road north of Goma, which had been buried in parts by the lava flow.
North Kivu, 23 May 2021. Congo in Conversation contributor Moses Sawasawa was also filing pictures to Agence France-Press, including this image of the main road north of Goma, which had been buried in parts by the lava flow.

Collectively, their work has shown international audiences what happened during the eruption, the continuing human toll during the aftermath, and ongoing efforts as the city once again begins to rebuild.

North Kivu, May 23  2021. A woman is given water as people flee town on the morning after the eruption. © Arlette Bashizi for Fondation Carmignac
North Kivu, May 23 2021. A woman is given water as people flee town on the morning after the eruption. © Arlette Bashizi for Fondation Carmignac
Goma, North Kivu, May 27  2021. People flee Goma towards the town of Sake five days after the eruption following an order from the government to evacuate the city for fear of another eruption. © Ley Uwera for Fondation Carmignac
Goma, North Kivu, May 27 2021. People flee Goma towards the town of Sake five days after the eruption following an order from the government to evacuate the city for fear of another eruption. © Ley Uwera for Fondation Carmignac
North Kivu, May 2021. People displaced by the eruption gather for the distribution of aid in Munigi on the northern outskirts of Goma. Moses Sawasawa for Fondation Carmignac
North Kivu, May 2021. People displaced by the eruption gather for the distribution of aid in Munigi on the northern outskirts of Goma. Moses Sawasawa for Fondation Carmignac
North Kivu, May 2021. People displaced by the eruption gather for the distribution of aid in Munigi on the northern outskirts of Goma. © Finbarr O’Reilly for Fondation Carmignac
North Kivu, May 2021. People displaced by the eruption gather for the distribution of aid in Munigi on the northern outskirts of Goma. © Finbarr O’Reilly for Fondation Carmignac
North Kivu, June 2, 2021. People seek refuge in a church in the town of Sake after the government ordered the evacuation of most of the city of Goma, leaving hundreds of thousands of people displaced and with almost no assistance. © Guerchom Ndebo for Fondation Carmignac
North Kivu, June 2, 2021. People seek refuge in a church in the town of Sake after the government ordered the evacuation of most of the city of Goma, leaving hundreds of thousands of people displaced and with almost no assistance. © Guerchom Ndebo for Fondation Carmignac
Rugero, Rwanda, May 2021. Bahati, who fled across the border into Rwanda, rests at a centre for people displaced by the eruption, in Rugero, Rwanda. © Ley Uwera for Fondation Carmignac
Rugero, Rwanda, May 2021. Bahati, who fled across the border into Rwanda, rests at a centre for people displaced by the eruption, in Rugero, Rwanda. © Ley Uwera for Fondation Carmignac
North Kivu, June 2, 2021. Women and children take shelter in a church in the town of Sake in eastern Democratic of Congo on Wednesday, 11 days after a volcanic eruption forced the evacuation of much of the nearby city of Goma and left 32 people dead and 20,000 homeless. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced, and more than 500,000 people have no access to clean drinking water after Goma’s main reservoir and pipes were damaged during the eruption. © Finbarr O’Reilly for Fondation Carmignac
North Kivu, June 2, 2021. Women and children take shelter in a church in the town of Sake in eastern Democratic of Congo on Wednesday, 11 days after a volcanic eruption forced the evacuation of much of the nearby city of Goma and left 32 people dead and 20,000 homeless. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced, and more than 500,000 people have no access to clean drinking water after Goma’s main reservoir and pipes were damaged during the eruption. © Finbarr O’Reilly for Fondation Carmignac
Mount Nyiragongo looms above the city of Goma in eastern Democratic of Congo on Sunday May 30, eight days after the eruption. © Finbarr O’Reilly for Fondation Carmignac
Mount Nyiragongo looms above the city of Goma in eastern Democratic of Congo on Sunday May 30, eight days after the eruption. © Finbarr O’Reilly for Fondation Carmignac

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