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Traversing Goma's Rivers of Fire

The earth rumbles on in Goma, while aid organizations already facing a humanitarian crisis warn of potential catastrophe.

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Lava ignited a gas station in Goma, adding to the city's devastation.

Tens of thousands of Congolese have returned to Goma despite warnings of further possible volcanic activity. The city, home to half a million people, is devastated following the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo last week.

But much of the population is returning to the ruined town, walking over streets flooded with crusted lava, most of it still smoldering.

Relief agencies are now being forced to reassess their strategies, said Dr. Adolf Diefenhardt, African regional coordinator for the German aid agency Malteser Hilfsdienst.

26 camps set up by humanitarian operations in neighboring Rwanda, away from the lava flows, are open for business but mostly unused.

"There are hardly any Congolese refugees left there, as they have all returned to Goma and the surrounding region," he told DW-WORLD. "This has made the situation much more difficult for us."

Tremors continue to rumble through the city, indicating that the volcano is still active.

"It is very hard for us to judge the possible extent of this humanitarian disaster," Diefenhardt said. "We don't know what is going to happen next."

A divided city

Already, Mount Nyiragongo's volcanic eruption has destroyed about half of Goma, Diefenhardt said. Two separate lava streams divide the city, with only the western third accessible. "This makes it harder for us to reach those people in the other two parts," he said.

A central problem is clean water. Many homeless are forced to drink from Lake Kivu, feared contaminated by the sulfurous magma. "We and other aid agencies are now distributing chlorine purifying tablets," he said.

Turning away from Rwanda

Many people who have lost everything still prefer to fend for themselves at home rather than resettling as refugees in Rwanda.

Some of those returning to Goma report that their money was not accepted in the neighboring country, nor were food or water made available.

Others are reluctant to accept help from Rwanda, because it has given military backing to Congolese rebels who control the Goma region.

Diefenhardt said many people feel better off in the hands of friends and family in the area. "You are really seeing a strong sense of community the Africans are so well-known for."