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Volcano tourism

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

Experts fear the next eruption could be worse. Though the city may be better prepared, thanks to a comprehensive evacuation plan endorsed by both the United Nations and International Red Cross, a future explosion could be far more unforgiving.

According to scientists, the 2002 eruption moved the volcano’s underground fissure closer to Goma — perhaps below the city itself, meaning the next eruption could come from directly underneath the town. More ominously, if the eruption were to alter the bed of nearby Lake Kivu, it could trigger the release of dissolved carbon dioxide and methane gasses, threatening more than 2 million people living in the lake’s basin. As it is, scores of people — mainly children — are asphyxiated around Goma each year by fissures leaking pockets of carbon dioxide, known locally as mazuku, or “evil winds.”

(Read more about living beneath the volcanoes in Goma.)

To most experts, Goma is an African Pompeii in the making, a city that should be moved entirely. Instead, it has more than doubled in size since the 2002 eruption, and much of the town is now built of Nyiragongo lava.

For all its primordial hazards, Goma’s most imminent threat may still be one of man and not of nature. While much of eastern Congo remains plagued with insurgents, Goma is now quiet due largely to the presence of 3,000 U.N. soldiers, part of a 20,000-strong operation known by the French acronym MONUC. In Congo since 1999, it is currently the world’s largest peacekeeping mission.

Yet with Congo’s 50th anniversary of independence to be celebrated this June, and elections scheduled for 2011, President Joseph Kabila has called for a MONUC withdrawal. Heeding his demand, on April 13, U.N. Special Representative to Congo Alan Doss presented the U.N. Security Council with a proposed timetable for a mission drawdown to be completed by June 2011.

Analysts such as Thierry Vircoulon, central Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, believe this is a grave error.

“President Kabila wants the U.N. to leave as a sign of independence,” said Vircoulon. “He wants to show he can take charge of the country. But the security is not good enough for the U.N. to leave the Congo.”

Munganga is more blunt as he continues his crater-side narrative, the molten rock behind him glowing brilliant reds and oranges with nightfall.

“Most rebels are scared of the U.N. soldiers,” he said. “The U.N. can finish them off in one hour. But once the U.N. leaves, any rebellion can come and Goma will be taken in two minutes.”

“We’re here today,” he continued. “But two days from now you could just go to the internet and find that the volcano is closed. This is life in Congo.”

Read more about living beneath the volcanoes in Goma.