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Volcano tourism

Glowing Mount Nyiragongo provides Goma residents a trekking business even as it threatens city.

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — It’s just past dusk at the summit of Mount Nyiragongo, and though a pool of molten lava churns 2,600 feet below, Emmanuel Munganga shivers in the evening chill as he recounts the tragic story of eastern Congo.

A land of precious minerals and rich volcanic soil, this should be one of Africa’s most prosperous regions. Instead, as a theater for conflicts involving eight African nations and dozens of rebel armies, it’s been home, over the last 15 years, to the greatest concentration of human suffering since World War II.

According to a 2008 study by the International Rescue Committee, 5.4 million people died between 1998 and 2008 as a result of the Congo crisis — the majority victims of disease, lack of medicine and malnutrition.

To most, the “world capital of rape, torture, and mutilation,” — as New York Times columnist Nick Kristof recently referred to Congo — would not seem a likely holiday destination. Yet now that there is relative calm in Goma, the capital of the DRC’s North Kivu province and transit point for much of eastern Congo, tour operators like Munganga have begun to reel in a steady flow of visitors who want to trek up to the volcano.

Topping the list of attractions is a night on the rim of the 11,385-foot Nyiragongo, one of two active volcanoes in the Virunga mountain chain that straddles the border of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. Until March, Mount Nyiragongo had been closed to visitors for more than a year, as members of the extremist FDLR militia, founded by perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide, lurked in the volcano’s forested lower slopes and pillaged nearby villages.

Now, after a joint offensive by the armies of Congo and Rwanda — symbolized by a bullet-hole-riddled sign marking the entrance to Virunga National Park and the start of the five-hour hike to the summit — Nyiragongo is safe and drawing visitors in increasing numbers.

By Easter weekend more than 90 tourists had made the overnight journey to the crater rim, each paying about $300, divided between park fees, equipment rental, armed rangers, guides and porters. Even this modest windfall, said Munganga, who struggled to make ends meet as a teacher before becoming a tour operator, has given the local economy a needed boost.

“In Congo, if you wait for the government to pay you, you will be poor,” he said, noting a porter can earn as much for one trip up Nyiragongo ($20) as a government soldier does in a month. “This is why we see the value in tourism.”

Yet while Munganga sees his future in Nyiragongo’s lake of fire, the 800,000 residents of Goma — situated just 11 miles south of the summit — fear eventual destruction. In 2002, an eruption from the side of Nyiragongo leveled a fifth of the city in a matter of hours, killing dozens and sending hundreds of thousands in flight across the nearby Rwandan border.