A volcano, hundreds of earthquakes, and a missing 6-year-old: How one family survived 14 hellish days in eastern Congo

A volcano, hundreds of earthquakes, and a missing 6-year-old: How one family survived 14 hellish days in eastern Congo
This aerial photograph, taken on June 4, 2021, shows Mount Nyiragongo and one of the lava flows into the northern districts of Goma.Alexis Huguet for Insider
  • Mt. Nyiragongo erupted on May 22, triggering earthquakes and a chaotic evacuation of Goma - a city of 2 million in eastern Congo.
  • Amid the exodus, hundreds of children were separated from their families, including 6-year-old Elie.
  • This is the story of how one family made it through a hellish series of natural disasters in one of the most vulnerable places on earth.

When Mount Nyiragongo erupted in eastern Congo on May 22, there was no warning.

On that first night, as the lava flowed towards the city of Goma, it covered 13 villages and wiped out 3,629 homes, before coming to a halt half a mile from the city's airport and less than two miles from one of its central markets. At least 37 people have been reported dead.

Nyiragongo is one of the world's most dangerous volcanoes - it last erupted 19 years ago - and its presence 10 miles from Goma casts a perennial shadow over the city. And yet, even since the 2002 eruption, which buried large patches of Goma in volcanic rock, the city's population has swelled, largely as a consequence of the violent conflicts in the surrounding area, pushing hundreds of thousands to seek refuge in Goma.

Goma, the largest city in the region, has over the last two decades become a hub for the United Nations and countless humanitarian agencies and the economic opportunities that have come with the international presence. The city's geographic proximity to the region's mining riches, and its location just over the border from Rwanda, made it even more attractive to the entrepreneurial. In the calm years, Nyiragongo has come to be something of a tourist draw: travelers who come to Goma on their way to see mountain gorillas in the nearby Virunga National Park sometimes include a hike up Nyiragongo as part of their itinerary.

A volcano, hundreds of earthquakes, and a missing 6-year-old: How one family survived 14 hellish days in eastern Congo
Children separated from their families while fleeing the Mount Nyiragongo eruption are being sheltered in a church in nearby Sake.Guerchom Ndebo/AFP via Getty Images

Now, two weeks after the initial eruption, the immediate danger from Mount Nyiragongo seems to have passed, and Goma's residents are now faced with putting their lives back together.


For one of Goma's residents, 40-year-old Moise Lukusha, it has been two weeks of misery and uncertainty.

On the first night, Elie, his 6-year-old son, went missing.

A frantic exodus

Lukusha was downtown when he learned of the eruption; as panic overtook Goma's residents, he rushed home.

Two of his children -Elie, 6, and Gedeon, 9 - had been watching television in the living room when the eruption began, and everyone started to run. They went outside and got swept away in the crowds.

By the time Lukusha reached their home, Elie and Gedeon were gone.


Lukusha thought they might have gone to Sake, 15 miles away. Goma sits between Lake Kivu and Congo's eastern border with Rwanda and, for those fleeing on foot, Sake was one of the only places to go. And so, Lukusha joined the thousands of people making their way to Sake.

But neither boy was there.

Gedeon had ended up aboard a truck taking people, free of charge, to another city, Masisi, about 50 miles northwest. There, a kind-hearted stranger took him in for three days, until she could arrange to have him ride in a car back to Goma. Back in the city, Gedeon knew his way back home.

But Elie did not turn up - not at their home in Goma, not in Sake, not in any of the reunification centers that had been set up for unaccompanied children.

"I lost my son and I'm still looking for him," Lukusha texted, days later.


"The conditions were inhumane"

When the lava flow stopped early the next morning, people, fearing that their homes might be looted, began returning to Goma. All the while, earthquakes regularly shook the city. By the morning of May 25, the Goma Volcano Observatory had recorded 269 earthquakes since the eruption.

A volcano, hundreds of earthquakes, and a missing 6-year-old: How one family survived 14 hellish days in eastern Congo
Goma residents are seen leaving after an evacuation order on May 27, 2021.Guerchom Ndebo/AFP via Getty Images

The highest magnitude reached 5.2 on the Richter scale, bringing down several buildings and homes.

Large cracks appeared in the ground, some snaking across main roads in central Goma. The tremors also damaged water distribution systems that had already been compromised by the lava flow, leaving 550,000 people without access to potable water. The local head of the French aid group Doctors Without Borders warned that residents were at a high risk of cholera.

Worse still, there were warnings of the potential for a second volcanic eruption and the explosion of deadly methane and carbon dioxide gases from Lake Kivu, which could kill hundreds of thousands within minutes.

On Thursday, May 27 - five days after the eruption - the local governor of North Kivu province ordered the mandatory evacuation of 10 of Goma's 15 neighborhoods.


The announcement sparked an even bigger exodus than the first one.

Over the next 24 hours, over 400,000 people - nearly a quarter of Goma's population - left the city on foot, on motos, on boats, or in cars, using the few available roads. Again, most headed towards Sake, causing a complete traffic blockage on the westbound road. Once the lava was cleared from the northbound road, others headed towards Rutshuru territory. A third flow of people went across the border to the east, into Rwanda. Yet a fourth run of people piled into boats and traversed 130 km to the southern tip of Lake Kivu, to seek refuge in Bukavu, the capital of neighboring South Kivu province.

The largest portion of the exodus, in the direction of Sake, included 100 armored vehicles and military trucks transporting hundreds of UN peacekeepers that had also been ordered to evacuate their bases. A separate convoy of 53 UN trucks carrying 250 staff and 1200 of their dependents would continue past Sake, and head south to Bukabu over land. With favorable weather and a Landcruiser, the 100 km journey along dirt roads could be traversed in 7 hours. With the evacuation traffic blockade, however, it took the UN convoy 40 hours to complete.

A volcano, hundreds of earthquakes, and a missing 6-year-old: How one family survived 14 hellish days in eastern Congo
Waiting at an aid distribution site in Sake.Guerchom Ndebo/AFP for Insider

In Sake alone, a town with a population of 70,000, over 180,000 people arrived that Friday, including Moise, his wife and six of his children. From Kinshasa - the country's capital, situated on the opposite end of the country's vast geographical stretch across the African continent, and accessible only by plane - the government's spokesman said that people fleeing to Sake should not expect more than "a minimum comfort."

"Those that will go to Sake will not find the comfort they had in their homes because they are going to a zone that isn't specially arranged to receive them," Patrick Muyaya Katembwe, the spokesman, said at a press conference.


Sure enough, Lukusha and his family found no aid distributions when they arrived. The family slept outside, and food and basic goods were difficult to find or afford.

Marcelin, Moise's 24-year-old step-son, said corn that would normally cost between 100 and 300 francs, was selling for 1000 francs in Sake. In a report detailing the situation, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs attributed the price increases to the near halt in economic activities in Goma and the massive spike in demand.

For most Congolese, 73 percent of whom live under the international poverty line of $1.90 per day, the costs in Sake were crippling. "Even to go to the toilet, we had to pay," Lukusha would later say. The fee - 1500 Congolese francs, the equivalent of nearly 1 US dollar - was exorbitant.

A volcano, hundreds of earthquakes, and a missing 6-year-old: How one family survived 14 hellish days in eastern Congo
Moise Lukusha and his 6-year old son Elie near to their home in Goma.Alexis Huguet for Insider

"The way we lived in Sake, it was a nightmare," Lukusha said. "The conditions were inhumane."

Meanwhile, Lukusha was still searching for six-year-old Elie, going back and forth between Goma, Sake, and the other towns where people were seeking refuge. After days of this, he recalls sitting with his family on a soccer field in Sake amid crowds of evacuees, feeling certain that he would not see his boy again.


"The little means I had, I finished it all off searching for little Elie, to go to Minova, Masisi, Bweremana, everywhere. I lost everything I had," he said.

False alarms and a city on edge

According to the International Organization for Migration, by Tuesday, June 1, about 160,000 of the 400,000 people displaced since the eruption of the volcano had already returned to their homes. They cited reasons that included unacceptable conditions in the refuge sites, a decrease in the magnitude and frequency of earthquakes, and fears that their abandoned homes would be looted.

Families scattered in the chaos of the evacuations were also gradually reunited. Of the 1,340 children reported missing, all but 332 are back with their families,, according to UNICEF and its partners.

All the while, the government continued issuing statements warning people to stay out of the "red zones," saying that earthquakes were still happening daily even if not all of them were felt. On June 1st, for example, the Goma Volcano Observatory recorded 71 tremors, the majority of which were not felt by the population. Moreover, surface deformations indicated potential movement of magma under the city of Goma itself, and possibly Lake Kivu.

A volcano, hundreds of earthquakes, and a missing 6-year-old: How one family survived 14 hellish days in eastern Congo
From left to right, Gédéon, 9, Eli, 6, and two siblings at home on June 3rd, 2021. When the volcano erupted on May 22nd, the children fled. Eli went missing for 8 days.Alexis Huguet for Insider

Further confusing the general population, the Rwanda Environmental Management Authority's Lake Kivu monitoring team on Monday May 31, concluded that there is no imminent risk of gas explosions from Lake Kivu. But the local observatory was saying that lethal explosions were still a possibility.


There were also false alarms, further unnerving the battered population. There were also false alarms, further unnerving the battered population. Muyaya, the spokesman from the national government in Kinshasa, tweeted - and then deleted - that there had been an eruption "of weak intensity" at Mount Nyamulagira, another nearby volcano. Aerial surveillance soon confirmed that there had not, in fact, been an eruption. It was only smoke rising from charcoal production, a very common sight in the region.

Despite the ongoing evacuation order, Lukusha and his family were among those who had returned to Goma. That Sunday evening - eight days after the eruption - Lukusha was sitting in his living room when he looked up to see Elie at his doorstep, holding the hand of a stranger.

He pulled the boy into his arms. And, soon enough, Lukusha finally learned what had happened to his son over their long week of separation.

"Stay vigilant, stay vigilant"

In the chaos that broke out on the evening of the volcanic eruption, Elie had followed the crowd heading west, towards Sake. Near Mugunga, one of the neighborhoods in the outskirts of Goma, he followed people into the hills, where he fell asleep for the night.

The next morning, he continued through the wealthy neighborhood of Himbi, passing near the home that once belonged to Congo's infamous dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. "The little one was truly tired, his feet swollen," Lukusha would say, recounting the story as he'd been able to piece it together. "He slept by the entrance to a gated property."

A volcano, hundreds of earthquakes, and a missing 6-year-old: How one family survived 14 hellish days in eastern Congo
An aerial photo taken on June 4, 2021, shows path cleared through the lava stream that stopped 700 meters short of the Goma airport runway, and the central districts just beyond. Lake Kivu, posing threats of deadly gas explosions, is visible in the distance.Alexis Huguet for Insider

That's where the owner of the home found him. The man assumed that Elie was a street kid and, taking pity on him, brought him some avocados, bread and a bottle of water.

The story then took a bizarre turn, according to what the man told Lukusha: the man decided he would adopt Elie.

The idea, though, quickly fell apart. At church that Sunday, the man said his pastor advised him that Elie's parents were likely feeling frantic as they searched for their missing son.

"This, while we were searching for the child, going up to the center of Masisi, Minova, Bweremana, everywhere," Lukusha said, incredulous.

Insider was unable to confirm the details of the story, and the pastor could not immediately be reached. Lukusha said it appeared that Elie - reunited with his siblings as they played in their home in Goma - was doing well.


For most of the city, this is still a time of limbo. It's not clear what the recovery will look like, or how long it will take to get back to some semblance of normalcy.

A volcano, hundreds of earthquakes, and a missing 6-year-old: How one family survived 14 hellish days in eastern Congo
Children walk through a solidified lava in Goma after the May 22 eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano.Alexis Huguet for Insider

There is also suspicion that the central government, 1000 miles away in Kinshasa, might be dragging out the relief effort in this long-neglected part of the country to maximize the political currency that comes with delivering help. On Saturday, June 6, just hours after Goma's international airport was reopened, the country's prime minister Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde touched ground with much fanfare, making a rare visit to the unstable but mineral-rich eastern part of the country.

As for Goma, it's not yet clear if the city is truly safe yet.

"They say the city of Goma is still in danger. We don't know if it's true," said Marcelin, Lukusha's step-son. "Really we have no idea what is happening in our city because they send us [text] messages 'stay vigilant, stay vigilant' but I don't even know if that means there was a second volcanic eruption."

"Really," he said, "I have no idea."