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Volcano refugees defy dangers to return home

GOMA, Congo (CNN) -- Thousands of residents carrying suitcases, sleeping mats and clothing bundles streamed into this eastern Congolese town Sunday, despite the warm lava underfoot from last week's volcanic eruption and warnings by the local military and U.N. not to return.

Many of Goma's residents fled into neighboring Rwanda when Mount Nyiragongo began spewing molten rock Thursday night.

Those returning said they feared becoming refugees in Rwanda, where officials refused to give them even a glass of water without charging them.

"They wanted us to die. When we saw the sky clearing, we said we may as well go and die at home," one resident said.

"We don't want to be hassled and be taken to Ruhengeni [a Rwandan border town]," said another refugee, "because the situation in Ruhengeni is very catastrophic. There is no food or water."

CNN's Catherine Bond reports that although lava still flows, many people return to their homes rather than become refugees (January 20)

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Rivers of lava flow through the streets of Goma. CNN's Catherine Bond reports (January 19)

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Goma remained without electricity, and some residents were drawing water from Lake Kivu, which aid workers said had been tainted by molten rock and volcanic ash.

Relief agencies were rushing to set up fresh-water tanks to provide potable water.

There were fears a lack of clean water could lead to diseases such as dysentery and cholera, which killed up to 50,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees in Goma in 1994 in the exodus that followed Rwanda's genocide.

The United Nations said lava covered half of the town. No new eruptions were reported, however, and the rivers of lava appeared to be cooling.

Sporadic gunfire was heard in Goma as soldiers tried to prevent looting, but the lack of overall crowd control allowed others to break into shops along deserted streets and take what little was inside.

Aid workers described the difficulty in distributing aid supplies to the displaced residents, who were scattered along roads straddling the Rwandan-Congolese border and in nearby hills. One worker with World Vision estimated the number of refugees at 500,000.

Red Cross workers estimated the death toll at 47 when the 3,469-meter (11,380 foot) Nyiragongo unexpectedly erupted Thursday, although relief workers said it probably would be a long time before an accurate death toll could be established.

"People are afraid but are still trying to cross the lava flows," said Rob Wilkinson of Oxfam, the UK-based international aid agency. "Lava is like ice -- a crust forms on top, but if it cracks then people fall through and it can cause horrific injuries or even kill.

"But people are desperate to get back to their homes and see if anything survived. There has been a lot of looting and they want to save their belongings."

Braving violent earth tremors, men, women and children carried everything from babies to bicycles across the crusted rock, at one point running to escape the stifling heat the lava was still giving off.

"I'd prefer to die here than stay as a refugee there," Wamos Mubibya, 27, a hotel management student told Reuters on leaving the Rwandan town of Gisenyi to where many had fled.

"We can rebuild, if we get help," unemployed Nzamwita Ngarua, 35, told Reuters.

Aid agencies said they were encouraging refugees to gather at two sites some 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Gisenyi, where they said it would be easier to provide shelter, supplies and sanitation once aid promised by the international community started to arrive.

David Stevenson, field coordinator of the U.N. emergency food arm in the area, said refugees were returning to Goma in moments of calm, but others felt safer trudging toward the designated sites.

Rwandan volcanologist Dieudonne Wafula, who flew over Nyiragongo on Saturday, said the pressure of the lava stream was falling and several flows from the mountain had stopped.

"The danger has not gone away completely, but there's no risk of an imminent eruption," he said. "There is one lava jet, but the pressure is falling."

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan noted the natural disaster was taking place in an area already beset by years of conflict. The United Nations was sending a plane with 28 metric tons of emergency supplies to Kigali to help the Congolese refugees.

The volcano is one of several on the Rwanda-Congo-Uganda borders, an area of tropical rain forest and rare mountain gorillas. Congo is officially known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire.

Only two are active -- Nyamuragira, which erupted early last year but caused no casualties, and Nyiragongo.

In 1977, about 70 people were killed when one side of the volcano collapsed, flooding Goma with lava flowing at 40 mph, one of the fastest lava flows on record. During that eruption, lava came within 2,000 feet of Goma airport.

-- CNN Correspondent Catherine Bond contributed to this report.


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