Some Congolese See Hope in a Caldron of Liquid Fire

By Lydia Polgreen
September 23, 2008
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GOMA, Congo — Mount Nyiragongo glowers over this forsaken city, a sullen and capricious king crowned with thunderheads.

To most people here this volcano with a vast lake of fire in its belly is a slumbering menace. Twice in 31 years, it has hurled lava toward the city, most recently in 2002, when it left thigh-high drifts of black rock where neighborhoods used to be. It blanketed cabbage fields with scree. Thousands fled to neighboring Rwanda. At least 50 people died.

To a city cursed by as many plagues as biblical Egypt — cholera, endless floods of refugees, war, hunger and genocidal militias, to name a few — the next eruption is just one more thing to worry about.

Goma, after all, sits amid the smoldering remains of the vast regional war that engulfed Congo in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. Rebels and government soldiers still clash almost daily in the countryside and surrounding towns. Each week brings a new rumor that the city will once again be attacked.

But to a handful of optimistic businessmen here, Mount Nyiragongo is central to an effort to transform eastern Congo, best known as the epicenter of the deadliest conflict since World War II, into a tourist attraction.

“Congo used to be a jewel in Africa,” said Kennedy Rwema, a Congolese tour operator who is trying to draw tourists back. “We have mountain and lowland gorillas. We have beautiful countryside. And we have this volcano.”

For $200 his company, Hakuna Matata Tours, ushers tourists to the rim of the crater for an overnight stay. And business, surprisingly enough, is booming.

Eastern Congo is a place of exquisite beauty, especially the lush and mountainous Kivu region that abuts Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi. Goma, the capital of North Kivu, was once a picture-perfect town nestled among green hills lapped by Lake Kivu.

Years ago, before the lake was filled with the bodies of genocide victims on the Rwandan shore and those of cholera-stricken refugees on the Congo side, tourists swam in its crystalline waters. Before militias infested the surrounding hills, adventurers hiked them. Visitors could search out Congo’s fabled gorillas in the dense forests, until rampaging militias in search of minerals like coltan, gold and tin decimated the primate population.

The city once had plush lakeside lodges. These days the dilapidated hotels are full of aid workers. Besides being flattened by lava, the city bears the scars of attacks by a variety of armies.

But now a trickle of tourists is returning to Congo, formerly Zaire, lured by the promise of the untrammeled beauty as a result of the country’s long isolation. Dozens of visitors climb the steep slope of Mount Nyiragongo every month, camping for the night on a narrow ledge at the edge of the crater to see the lake of fire bubble and boil under the stars.

On a recent Saturday, at least three dozen climbers streamed up the steep trail to the 11,000-foot summit. Kalashnikov-toting park rangers accompanied the group, a reminder of how dangerous this place still is.

The visitors included a pair of New Zealanders on a cross-Africa trip, aid workers stationed in Congo and Rwanda and a Yale law student doing research on neglected humanitarian crises.

The path to the top is punishing. It was carved by lava from the first modern eruption, in 1977, and follows a ruthless upward trajectory for five long hours, first through thick forest, then through an increasingly stark, otherworldly landscape.

Columns of steam and gas rise from fissures in the ground. Riotous wildflowers erupt from cracks in vast lava fields. Trees stripped of their leaves in the last eruption stand like scarecrow sentinels along the trail. The air grows colder and thinner.

A crowd had gathered at the crater rim, with digital cameras snapping away at the roiling lake of fire more than 2,500 feet below.

<object.title class="Movie" idsrc="nyt_ttl" value="316298">“Unbelievable,”</object.title> said Lindsay Silver, an aid consultant from California, as he stared into the mesmerizing caldron. “Incredible.”

The volcano is an object of reverence and fear for most Congolese, who have learned the hard way to stay clear of it.

Rosalie Feza has lived for decades on a small plot of land about 12 miles from the volcano. In 2002 she was planting in a nearby field when she heard the volcano emit a blood-chilling series of gurgles and belches, and felt the shimmies of the earth as the crater trembled and cracked.

She ran home and gathered up her children and a few possessions — a photo album, baptismal documents, clothes. “The lava was at our backs,” she said.

They ran to Rwanda, but returned a few days later. The ground was still hot enough to melt her flip-flops. She recognized her former home by a tree that was, miraculously, left standing.

The family rebuilt the house, this time with wood, not concrete, a loss that still stings, Ms. Feza said. “God says you have to accept whatever comes to you,” she said, fingering a plastic white rosary. “So I accept.”

If tourists want to climb to the crater and peer down at the lake of fire, she said, that is their business. “I’ll stay down here.”

Many residents of Goma say the volcano erupted as punishment for the city’s sins, and there is dark talk of past practices of virgin sacrifice.

Jean Bosco Butsitsi Bigrwa, a traditional chief of Bakumu, a region at the base of the volcano, said the traditions had been misunderstood.

“It wasn’t really virgin sacrifice,” he said. It was a kind of virtual sacrifice. In the old days, he explained, a customary chief would cloister his eldest daughter in the family compound, where she was a bride to the spirits that inhabit the volcano. She was allowed lovers, but never permitted to leave her father’s compound or to wed. “This is how we placated the spirits.”

But the old ways died out and the practice gradually disappeared. It was only a matter of time until the spirits vented their rage, Mr. Butsitsi Bigrwa said.

Volcanologists now closely monitor the volcano and say they will be able to anticipate the next eruption, which they do not think is imminent.

And tourism can provide jobs for hundreds, Mr. Rwema said. Each weekend, tour operators like him hire porters to carry tents and other gear up the mountain for $24, a hefty sum for Congo. He has hired several guides and started a school to teach them English.

“Tourism can end war here in Congo,” he said. “If people are working, they are too busy to fight.”

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