Congo volcano: Residents try in vain to stop lava reaching village

'The houses are burned, the people are suffering, the problems are huge'

People trying in vain to redirect the course of the lava coming from Congo’s Mount Nyiragongo could only watch as the magma reached their village.

The volcano erupted for the first time in nearly two decades on Saturday, sending lava onto a major highway as panicked residents fled Goma, a city of nearly 2 million.

At least 15 people dead amid the chaos and more than 500 homes have been destroyed, officials and survivors said on Sunday.

More than 170 children were still feared missing Sunday, and UNICEF officials said they were organising transit centres to help unaccompanied children in the wake of the disaster.

"The houses are burned, the people are suffering, the problems are huge," said Alexis Kambere, a resident of Nyiragongo.

Residents check the damages caused by lava from the overnight eruption Credit: AP

The lack of immediate announcements from authorities and conflicting accounts circulating on social media only added to the sense of chaos in Goma.

Authorities at the Goma Volcano Observatory initially said it was the nearby Nyamulagira volcano that had erupted.

The two volcanoes are located about 13 kilometres (8.1 miles) apart.

Aline Bichikwebo and her baby managed to escape when the lava flow reached her village, but said both her mother and father were among those who perished.

Community members gave a provisional toll of 10 dead in Bugamba alone, though provincial authorities said it was too soon to know how many lives were lost.

Bichikwebo says she tried to rescue her father but wasn’t strong enough to move him to safety before the family’s home was ignited by lava.

Lava from the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo is seen in Buhene, on the outskirts of Goma. Credit: AP

“I am asking for help because everything we had is gone,” she said, clutching her baby. “We don’t even have a pot. We are now orphans and we have nothing.”

The government said an evacuation plan was being activated, but the official announcement came several hours after the sky turned a fiery red, and many already had fled on foot in hopes of crossing the Rwandan border post just outside town.

Car horns honked and motorcycle taxis weaved as people attempted to escape in panic.

Goma sits along the border between Congo and neighbouring Rwanda, and is a regional hub for many humanitarian agencies in the region, as well as the UN peacekeeping mission known as MONUSCO.

The volcano erupting is also close the Virunga National Park, home to some of the last mountain gorillas in the world.

While Goma is home to many UN peacekeepers and aid workers, much of the surrounding eastern Congo is also under threat from a myriad of armed groups vying for control of the region's mineral resources.