May 22, 2021, Mount Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo erupted. The splattering lava covered over a ten-kilometre radius including parts of the eastern city of Goma, home to over two million people.
Considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world with lava-flow speeds of up to 100km per hour, Nyiragongo erupted for the first time in two decades killing over 30 people and leaving at least 30, 000 others homeless.
Freelance photojournalist Moses Sawasawa, lives and works in Goma. He was heading home from work when he learnt of the eruption. He only had time to drop off part of his luggage before heading out to cover the devastation.
He spoke to us about his photos that still drew local and international media attention, his encounter with the eruption, and his connection with the local people.
You took incredible pictures. Tell us about the equipment you carried to the location.
Thank you; I did not think my photos were that good.
My current camera is a Nikon D800; a large and powerful camera. I also have two lenses; a 200mm telephoto and a 30mm normal. While on location I wished I had brought all of my equipment, but being the emergency that it was, I really could not carry much so I had just the camera and the two lenses.
There is a picture that you took of two children walking in the opposite direction of the crowd. How did you spot these children in the mess and what is the story here?
There was far too much traffic that evening. I saw a number of parents with their children; others without. I noticed these little ones strolling on the opposite side of the road in the thick of the mayhem. I snapped a front-facing photo of them but did not immediately publish it because I did not have their permission.
Later, I discovered that there were parents looking for their children. I collaborated with other photographers and wrote down the names of the children, and when we arrived at a stadium where the rest of the people had gathered for refuge, the parents would recognize their children from the images we had taken. That is how parents and their children were reunited.
In one of your photos, your subjects seem to be walking through smoke. It seems that the eruption did not give them enough time to escape?
The eruption took place at night but I took that photo the next morning.
People were curious and wanted to know what had transpired the night before. As a result, when I arrived at the scene that morning, I witnessed a large number of individuals engulfed in smoke, walking on dried lava. I immediately saw a setting ideal for a photograph.
In some of your photos of people fleeing the eruption, we see mostly women and children who don’t seem to carry any essentials like food, bedding or anything like that. Was there enough of these in the camps where they sought shelter?
If you look closely at my images, you will see that I photograph a lot of women and children, because women and children are frequently regarded as weak in our African cultures. But, through my photographs, I hope to demonstrate the strength and resilience of women by showing that women and children can do something as well.
Yes, there are people in some of my photographs who fled without essentials like food or clothing, but, in such cases, the first priority usually is to flee to safety. Everyone was desperate to save their own lives. There were volunteers at the camp who gave some assistance which initially was not sufficient; help arrived gradually.
From your observation, can we say that this disaster affected men and women differently?
Yes. Men would trek for considerable kilometres in search of temporary refuge, but it was extremely difficult for women, especially those with children. Water was scarce in the displacement camps. Hygiene was a major issue for women.
How does the coverage of this disaster differ from your regular methods of capturing images? Were there any obstacles or challenges you had to overcome?
My approach usually is to put down my thoughts before I go out, but this was too sudden for that kind of approach.
When news broke about the eruption, I began receiving calls from local and international news organizations requesting images right away. I was under so much pressure; I needed to take engaging images, communicate as much information as possible about the eruption and send them right away. This is not something I’m not accustomed to, but that is what this job is about; some assignments are complex but we learn from them.
Were there any lessons you learned while covering this eruption that you would like to share with us?
As a photographer, one thing I learned from this situation is that my camera is heavy. It made it difficult for me to move quickly. To be able to move faster in such scenarios, you must carry a light camera. You must also pack light as much as possible; no bulky or heavy equipment.
Mt. Nyiragongo has erupted before; in your view, could the deaths and loss of property have been avoided?
Yes, property loss could have been prevented, but the Goma Volcanology Observatory (OVG) seemed to be unaware that Mount Nyiragongo was due to erupt on that date, otherwise, they could have notified the public ahead of time. Unfortunately, no one foresaw the mountain erupting. It was sudden and left a trail of ruin in its wake.
Finally, as you were covering this disaster, what was that unique and touching moment that stood out for you?
The most touching moment for me was when I interacted with and photographed those who had been displaced by the eruption. I was curious to see what new activities they undertook. Living with them as they went about their business was a joy for me.