By James Verini

PUBLISHED MARCH 27, 2014 by National Geographic


Special Report: Congo

Last year the UN adopted Resolution 2098, allowing its troops to attack armed groups in Congo and leading to the defeat of the vicious M23 militia. The Security Council has voted to renew the resolution, but the battle for Africa’s heartland is far from over.

If volcanologists invent an instrument that can measure the interplay of beauty and menace, Nyiragongo, on the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the province of North Kivu, will send its needle into spasms. Twenty thousand years after it formed, Nyiragongo is still terribly Pleistocene in appearance: Its cone curves gently through montane forest and then thrusts two miles into the sky, where its rim is only occasionally visible through the wooly mists above Goma, the city it watches over and periodically destroys. The crater’s emissions give the mists green, amber, and crimson tones. The people who once lived around the volcano believed the souls of evildoers were cast into the crater. When the souls fought, the Earth shook.

When Nyiragongo erupted in 1894, soon after those people had found themselves working as slaves for the Belgian King Leopold II, they took it as a sign that the arrival of Europeans into the African interior didn’t bode well. (Leopold’s soul would soon enough find its way into the crater, they imagined.) When it erupted in 1977, during the reign of the tyrant Mobutu Sese Seko, lava exploded from the mountain’s sides and raced at 60 miles an hour—still a world record for molten rock—toward Goma. Mobutu was ousted by a rebel leader who was himself assassinated in 2001, and the next year Nyiragongo erupted again, this time sending a river of lava a third of a mile wide through the city. Underground magma veins beneath the streets ruptured, sending up fiery geysers. Homes were suddenly solid black mausoleums. “It looked as if a ten-lane highway had been dropped down the mountain’s flanks, right across the city,”National Geographic observed.

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