GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — It’s just past dusk at the summit of Mount Nyiragongo, and though a pool of molten lava churns 2,600 feet below, Emmanuel Munganga shivers in the evening chill as he recounts the tragic story of eastern Congo.

A land of precious minerals and rich volcanic soil, this should be one of Africa’s most prosperous regions. Instead, as a theater for conflicts involving eight African nations and dozens of rebel armies, it’s been home, over the last 15 years, to the greatest concentration of human suffering since World War II.

According to a 2008 study by the International Rescue Committee, 5.4 million people died between 1998 and 2008 as a result of the Congo crisis — the majority victims of disease, lack of medicine and malnutrition.

To most, the “world capital of rape, torture, and mutilation,” — as New York Times columnist Nick Kristof recently referred to Congo — would not seem a likely holiday destination. Yet now that there is relative calm in Goma, the capital of the DRC’s North Kivu province and transit point for much of eastern Congo, tour operators like Munganga have begun to reel in a steady flow of visitors who want to trek up to the volcano.

Topping the list of attractions is a night on the rim of the 11,385-foot Nyiragongo, one of two active volcanoes in the Virunga mountain chain that straddles the border of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. Until March, Mount Nyiragongo had been closed to visitors for more than a year, as members of the extremist FDLR militia, founded by perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide, lurked in the volcano’s forested lower slopes and pillaged nearby villages.

Now, after a joint offensive by the armies of Congo and Rwanda — symbolized by a bullet-hole-riddled sign marking the entrance to Virunga National Park and the start of the five-hour hike to the summit — Nyiragongo is safe and drawing visitors in increasing numbers.

By Easter weekend more than 90 tourists had made the overnight journey to the crater rim, each paying about $300, divided between park fees, equipment rental, armed rangers, guides and porters. Even this modest windfall, said Munganga, who struggled to make ends meet as a teacher before becoming a tour operator, has given the local economy a needed boost.

“In Congo, if you wait for the government to pay you, you will be poor,” he said, noting a porter can earn as much for one trip up Nyiragongo ($20) as a government soldier does in a month. “This is why we see the value in tourism.”

Yet while Munganga sees his future in Nyiragongo’s lake of fire, the 800,000 residents of Goma — situated just 11 miles south of the summit — fear eventual destruction. In 2002, an eruption from the side of Nyiragongo leveled a fifth of the city in a matter of hours, killing dozens and sending hundreds of thousands in flight across the nearby Rwandan border.

Experts fear the next eruption could be worse. Though the city may be better prepared, thanks to a comprehensive evacuation plan endorsed by both the United Nations and International Red Cross, a future explosion could be far more unforgiving.

According to scientists, the 2002 eruption moved the volcano’s underground fissure closer to Goma — perhaps below the city itself, meaning the next eruption could come from directly underneath the town. More ominously, if the eruption were to alter the bed of nearby Lake Kivu, it could trigger the release of dissolved carbon dioxide and methane gasses, threatening more than 2 million people living in the lake’s basin. As it is, scores of people — mainly children — are asphyxiated around Goma each year by fissures leaking pockets of carbon dioxide, known locally as mazuku, or “evil winds.”

(Read more about living beneath the volcanoes in Goma.)

To most experts, Goma is an African Pompeii in the making, a city that should be moved entirely. Instead, it has more than doubled in size since the 2002 eruption, and much of the town is now built of Nyiragongo lava.

For all its primordial hazards, Goma’s most imminent threat may still be one of man and not of nature. While much of eastern Congo remains plagued with insurgents, Goma is now quiet due largely to the presence of 3,000 U.N. soldiers, part of a 20,000-strong operation known by the French acronym MONUC. In Congo since 1999, it is currently the world’s largest peacekeeping mission.

Yet with Congo’s 50th anniversary of independence to be celebrated this June, and elections scheduled for 2011, President Joseph Kabila has called for a MONUC withdrawal. Heeding his demand, on April 13, U.N. Special Representative to Congo Alan Doss presented the U.N. Security Council with a proposed timetable for a mission drawdown to be completed by June 2011.

Analysts such as Thierry Vircoulon, central Africa project director for the International Crisis Group, believe this is a grave error.

“President Kabila wants the U.N. to leave as a sign of independence,” said Vircoulon. “He wants to show he can take charge of the country. But the security is not good enough for the U.N. to leave the Congo.”

Munganga is more blunt as he continues his crater-side narrative, the molten rock behind him glowing brilliant reds and oranges with nightfall.

“Most rebels are scared of the U.N. soldiers,” he said. “The U.N. can finish them off in one hour. But once the U.N. leaves, any rebellion can come and Goma will be taken in two minutes.”

“We’re here today,” he continued. “But two days from now you could just go to the internet and find that the volcano is closed. This is life in Congo.”

Read more about living beneath the volcanoes in Goma.

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