The government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has ordered the evacuation of Goma after the eruption of the Mount Nyiragongo volcano overlooking the eastern city.
Even before the official announcement on Saturday, thousands of people had started filling the streets and carrying what they could as they headed out of the border city.
The communications minister, Patrick Muyaya, tweeted: “The evacuation plan for the city of Goma has been activated … The government is discussing the urgent measures to take at present.”
Muyaya added that the plan was activated after an emergency meeting of the government.
The exodus from the city began earlier on Saturday even before the Nyiragongo volcano erupted, spewing red fumes into the night sky.
Power was cut in large parts of the city and hundreds of residents began leaving their homes and heading towards the nearby border with Rwanda.
“The sky has turned red,” said one resident, Carine Mbala. “There is a smell of sulphur. In the distance you can see giant flames coming out of the mountain. But there has not been any earthquake.”
“People are leaving or preparing to leave,” another Goma resident said, as the streets began filling up, some people carrying as many of their belongings as they could.
“I am taking the children and getting into the car. There is a risk that the lava will flow on Goma,” another said.
For the moment, there is no sign of a flow of lava from the city. But the last time Nyiragongo erupted, on 17 January 2002, more than a hundred people were killed and almost all of the eastern part of Goma was covered with lava, including half of the airport’s landing strip. Hundreds of thousands fled the city.
The deadliest eruption of the 3,000-metre high volcano was in 1977, when more than 600 died.
Goma sits on the mountain’s southern flank and overlooks Lake Kivu. The Goma region, which lies in North Kivu province, bordering Rwanda and Uganda, has six volcanoes, all higher than 3,000 metres.