Japanese version of the Sanskrit word "homa". A common Mikkyo Buddhist practice involving fire. Solid objects are set ablaze, reminding the practitioner that everything is always in motion.

Were we to judge only by events of joy and good fortune, Goma would have remained a totally unknown African town, placed and forgotten somewhere in the east of today's Democratic Republic of the Congo, near the border to Rwanda. Yet Goma has been mentioned time and again in the news, seemingly attracting one disaster after the other.

It started with the Rwandan genocide in 1994. The Tutsis had been the victims, now they wanted to take revenge on the Hutus, whether they had been responsible or not. A million Hutus fled to Zaire to escape this vengeful wrath. They settled in refugee camps around Goma, just across the border, and waited. Most of them were waiting to return peacefully to their homes, others were impatient about doing some more killing. They decided to strike fear in the hearts of the local Banyumalenge people, an ethnic group related to the Tutsis.

The crumbling Zairean government did nothing to stop them. In fact, the local administration and the army supported the reforming genocidal groups. Remaining in power was the most important for them. They had little to come up with, however, when the opposition, led by Laurent Kabila, joined forces with the Rwandan army and sought to overthrow the regime.

In 1996, Kabila conquered eastern Zaire and scattered the refugee camps, forcing many of the Hutus to return home. Goma became his headquarter. The rebels were not particularly loved by the locals. They spent more time in bars than ruling, and meanwhile, Mobutu's government was dropping bombs over the city. With time Kabila and his men won, however, and moved west into the capital of the country, Kinshasa. They also gave Zaire a new name.

Peace should now have descended over Goma. But the whimsical forces of nature had more in store. Even during the various wars there had been rumours of rising activity in the eight volcanoes in the vicinity. The first eruption came in February 2001, when Nyamuragira brought forth tonnes of lava. The damage was mostly done to the land, however, and there were only occasional human injuries.

Things seemed to die down, but inside the bowels of Earth they never do. A year later another volcano, Nyiragongo, exploded in a magmatic inferno. The lava was thick enough to allow most people to escape, but it could not be stopped. Several villages were buried, and in Goma, 10,000 homes were devastated. The city was divided by a river of glowing lava.

Hundreds of thousands of Goma's half a million inhabitants fled, many of them into Rwanda. Charity organisations started planning to help them there, but most people wanted to return to see if their home was still there. They found a city reduced with 35%. The buildings that had not been touched by the volcano had often fallen victim to looters instead. Goma seemed to be inviting epidemies since there was no clean water (cholera), no sleeping shelter (malaria), and little food (reduced immunity).

It didn't turn out quite that badly. Neither mountain nor plague erupted, and Goma is quiet again. Until next time.

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