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Tuesday, 26 February, 2002, 16:33 GMT
Goma: One month on
remains of a house in Goma
Goma residents face an uncertain future
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By Andrew Harding
BBC East Africa correspondent

Omar Suleiman sits on the balcony of the Lumamba hotel, watching the cars drive down Goma's main street.

Each vehicle churns up a thick cloud of brown dust which shimmers in the heat haze that still envelops the centre of this ravaged town.

The hotel balcony used to be on the first floor. Today it is the new ground floor.

The rest of the building, and the entire neighbourhood, lie submerged beneath a sea of lava. The main street is nothing more than a groove in the lava, smoothed by a bulldozer.

Black waves, now rock hard, seem to lap against the balcony railings where Omar and his family sit and ponder their future.

Click here to see the location of the volcano

Woman crossing lava field
Streets are nothing more than paths in the lava
"Everything is destroyed," says Omar, the hotel's manager, showing me the incinerated beds and mattresses inside. Lava has even forced its way through the pipes into the upstairs toilets.

"We're staying on here to guard against looters - to protect what the volcano has spared. But of course we have no guests, and the fumes from the lava are very strong and unpleasant."

World's 'most hazardous place'

One month after Mount Nyiragongo exploded, the lava field in Goma has stopped moving, but the crust is still warm to the touch.

Young boys in thin plastic sandals run across the hottest patches pushing the cheapest form of local transport - home-made wooden bicycles - piled high with vegetables.

Every few metres, sulphurous smoke seeps from cracks in the lava. Push a stick into the hole and, within seconds, it will catch fire.

"This must be the most hazardous place in the world," says Professor Dario Tedesco, an Italian vulcanologist brought in by the United Nations to monitor the volcano and other seismic activity.

Mr Tedesco says the earth tremors have moved from Mount Nyiragongo, down towards Goma itself and on under Lake Kivu.

He is worried that the lava in town is taking so long to cool - a sign perhaps of new volcanic activity under Goma.

Poisonous gas risk

As for the lake, "it could be a major tragedy," he says.

Over the centuries, huge quantities of poisonous gases have built up on the lake floor. Increased seismic activity has already pushed the lake floor down by half a metre this year alone.

Goma resident
Some people have lost everything
The danger is that the gas will be destabilised, and forced to the surface.

"So much gas, and so many people living along the side of the lake," says Tedesco. "They could be poisoned."

But the population of Goma seems determined to stay on, despite the risks.

Like some frenzied archeologist, Christian Akilimali chips away at a corner of the lava field, trying to clear out the entrance to a house.

The owner is paying him for his labour - $1.50 for every cubic metre he clears.

"Hot work," says Christian, putting down his sledge hammer for a second, and glancing up at the frozen waves of black lava stretching out into the haze.

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See also:

18 Jan 02 | Africa
In pictures: Volcano wreaks havoc
18 Jan 02 | Sci/Tech
Congo volcano: The facts
23 Jan 02 | Africa
How to help volcano victims
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