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Sleeping on fire: A trip to Africa’s most dangerous volcano, in an active conflict zone

The Spirit of Nyiragongo

Mount Nyiragongo is Africa’s most active volcano. Located in the war-torn country of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it has the largest of only a small handful of permanent lava lakes in the world. Up until 2014, this region was virtually closed off due to being under control of the rebel group M23.

Local legend claims the volcano is inhabited by the spirit of Nyiragongo. That spirit is thought to be a fierce enemy of the spirit of an adjacent mountain, Ryang’ombe. They occasionally go to war with one another, resulting in destructive and powerful volcanic eruptions.

In 2002, Nyiragongo erupted, leveling over 30 percent of the city of Goma. A majority of the city now is being rebuilt on the hardened lava flow, several meters higher than where the city previously stood. While lava often runs slowly due to high silica content, Nyiragongo’s lava reached speeds up to 65 kilometers per hour due to its low viscosity. Within hours of the eruption, the lava reached Goma, a city of over one million people. Due to the porous bedrock under Goma, fissures opened underneath the city, spewing lava, and causing petrol stations to explode.

Signs at the trailhead entrance to Nyiragongo’s summit show one of the many remnants of the armed conflict in the region. Photo Credit: Nick Dowhaniuk

Rangers on the front lines

The mythical war between Nyiragongo and Ryang’ombe is not the only one being fought in this region, where conservation and armed conflict are tightly intertwined. Due to a tenuous and unpredictable security situation, Nyiragongo is under constant threat of being retaken by the M23 rebels. M23 currently reside just north of the mountain. Three armed rangers were my protection during my hike to the summit. One ranger hiked thirty meters ahead of the group to ensure safety up front, another walked directly in front of me, while another trailed the team. A large station of rangers is also located permanently mid-mountain; they are charged with patrolling the area day in and out.

Nyiragongo was a strategic strongpoint for the M23 while they had control of the territory a few years ago. They used the elevation and proximity to fire mortars into the city. Maintaining security on this mountain is one of the keys to a secure Goma. The rangers have a dangerous job, as more than 100 have been killed in the line of duty in the national park.

Armed rangers protect Nyiragongo and those who visit from both wildlife and rebel groups who remain active in the region. Photo Credit: Nick Dowhaniuk

Documenting conflict on the front lines

I was lucky to hike with Dan McCabe, a documentary filmmaker and expert on the conflict in the eastern DRC. Spending about 80 percent of his time in Goma and 20 percent in New York City, Dan recently finished a documentary called This is Congo. The film details the recent history of complex conflict in the area. Dan was able to cover all sides of the conflict, even meeting face to face with many rebel leaders.

Dan has a deep passion and love for Goma and the Congo. He walked me through the conflict, pointing out the previous battle lines in the city of Goma that were visible more than two-thousand meters below. Dan told stories of the corruption he faces each day, and his regular encounters with banditry. Thieves will literally knock you off of a moving motorcycle taxi to rob or harass you.

Dan McCabe (left) and Nick Dowhaniuk (right) on the summit of Mount Nyiragongo. Photo Credit: Nick Dowhaniuk.

When the M23 took over Goma in 2012, Dan had just made it back to New York days earlier. The very day Goma fell, he booked the first flight back to Kigali, Rwanda, traveled across the country to the DRC border and filmed the front lines. The UN’s hands were tied and essentially fled Goma, along with all the NGO’s in the area. Thieves overran the area, and the citizens of Goma took it upon themselves to police the city. Dan witnessed Goma residents burning and stoning thieves alive, and he was caught up in gunfire.

As Dan says, things change fast in Goma. Any day now, the M23 could return in an attempt to retake the city. Recent political turmoil surrounding presidential elections have made the area particularly volatile. Just two months before my visit, the M23 attacked Goma airport and gunfire rang throughout the city center. Goma might fall again, but until then Dan is one of the few people willing to patiently wait with his camera to tell Goma’s story.

The future of Goma and Nyiragongo

While the conflict itself is always on Goma residents’ minds, so is Nyiragongo. Many deem Nyiragongo an African Pompeii in the making, with the next eruption predicted to be even more significant and destructive than the last. The residents of Goma have tirelessly rebuilt the city in the same area it stood before the 2002 eruption, knowing full well that there is a high chance their efforts will once again be destroyed when the spirit of Nyiragongo reawakens.

Nick Dowhaniuk is a National Geographic Explorer, Global Health Researcher, Conservationist, and Photographer working in Uganda and East Africa. He is based at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida, USA.

 

Nick Dowhaniuk participated in the National Geographic Society Sciencetelling Bootcamp in Washington. D.C. More than a dozen National Geographic explorers partnered with a team of National Geographic storytellers to develop personal and professional storytelling skills through public speaking, videography, photography, social media and blogging. The multi-day Sciencetelling course was created especially for scientists and conservationists to effectively communicate their work to audiences beyond peer-reviewed journals. A selection of their blog posts, photographs and videos are published on the Sciencetelling Stories blog. Learn more about National Geographic’s Sciencetelling Bootcamp program.