A person stands in front of lava from the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo, in Buhene, on the outskirts of Goma, Congo in the early hours of Sunday, May 23, 2021.
A person stands in front of lava from the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo, in Buhene, on the outskirts of Goma, Congo in the early hours of Sunday, May 23, 2021.
Photo: AP/PTI

Torrents of lava poured into villages after dark in eastern Congo with little warning, leaving at least 15 people dead amid the chaos and destroying more than 500 homes. More than 170 children were still feared missing on Sunday, with rescue and evacuation operations underway. Mount Nyiragongo erupted for the first time since 2002, with the visuals showing slow-moving streams of lava burning through everything on its route.

The eruption had sent about 5,000 people fleeing from the city of Goma across the nearby border into Rwanda, while another 25,000 others sought refuge to the northwest in Sake, the UN children's agency said Sunday. Photos shared by news agency AFP also showed people sleeping on sidewalks or simply walking away with whatever possessions that can carry.

In 2002 however, the situation had been much worse, with hundreds being killed and over 100,000 people were left homeless. But the lessened magnitude does not take away from the grief and uncertainty of the present times, and many have lost friends and family members or been rendered homeless without any possessions.

Residents said there was little warning before the dark sky turned a fiery red, sending people running for their lives in all directions. One woman went into labor and gave birth while fleeing the eruption to Rwanda, the national broadcaster there said.

Congolese fleeing from Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), sleep with their belongings on a street after the Nyiragongo volcano erupted near the border in Gisenyi, Rwanda, on May 23, 2021
Congolese fleeing from Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), sleep with their belongings on a street after the Nyiragongo volcano erupted near the border in Gisenyi, Rwanda, on May 23, 2021
Photo: AFP

Aline Bichikwebo and her baby managed to escape when the lava flow reached her village, but said both her mother and father were among those who perished. Bichikwebo says she tried to rescue her father but wasn't strong enough to move him to safety before the family's home was ignited by lava.

A lost child sits on a curb as Congolese people flee from Goma after the Nyiragongo volcano erupted, at the border point known as "Petite Barriere" in Gisenyi, Rwanda, on May 23, 2021.
A lost child sits on a curb as Congolese people flee from Goma after the Nyiragongo volcano erupted, at the border point known as "Petite Barriere" in Gisenyi, Rwanda, on May 23, 2021.
Photo: AFP

According to updates shared by the UNHCR, as of Sunday evening the eruption appears to be subsiding and many were returning to the areas they had fled from. "But thousands are feared to be left homeless," the organisation added.

Locals say that almost an entire neighbourhood has been lost to the lava. "All the houses in Buhene neighbourhood were burned and that's why we are asking all the provincial authorities and authorities at the national level as well as all the partners, all the people of good faith in the world, to come to the aid of this population," one individual said.

Elsewhere witnesses said lava had engulfed one highway connecting Goma with the city of Beni.

Members of the Indian Army had also joined the evacuation process under MONUSCO, a UN peacekeeping mission headquartered in the town of Goma. The town is a regional hub for many humanitarian agencies in the region, as well as the UN peacekeeping mission.

While Goma is home to many UN peacekeepers and aid workers, much of surrounding eastern Congo is under threat from myriad armed groups vying for control of the region's mineral resources.

(With inputs from agencies)

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