Research at the intersection of ‘human rage and nature’s fury’


Charles Balagizi on the shoreline of Lake Kivu while conducting field activities on the lake.

Volcanologist Charles Balagizi prepares to take measurements and collect samples to track volcanic gases in Lake Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.Credit: Dr Charles Balagizi

Science in conflict zones

Field researchers working in conflict zones often face significant challenges: not only must they deal with the practical and ethical complexities posed by such volatile environments, but also the risk to their personal safety. These scientists might be vulnerable to intimidation, violence and kidnapping. Nonetheless, some people feel compelled to go where the crucial and sometimes life-saving data must be collected, while fully understanding the challenges involved.

In addition to safety risks, their work exposes them to trauma and the suffering of others, leaving emotional and psychological scars. Moreover, fear and mistrust, which are already prevalent in conflict zones and are particularly felt towards researchers from abroad, can limit local cooperation on projects. Researchers with experience working in conflict zones have learnt important lessons for keeping their teams safe and their research moving forward.

In the first of a series of three interviews, Charles Balagizi, a volcanologist at Goma Volcano Observatory in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, describes how he copes with the dangers of fieldwork — monitoring volcanoes and water sources — amid conflict across the region.

I grew up in Kivu, a region of conflict and disaster in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where human rage and nature’s fury meet for killing and destruction. I was 16 years old when the First Congo War began in 1996. The main event that triggered it was the Rwandan genocide in 1994, after which some parties involved in that act crossed the Congo–Rwanda border to fight in the eastern Congolese territory, drawing in the Congolese government and rebels.

Nearly two million people living in and around Goma in Kivu are also exposed to threats from volcanoes. When Mount Nyiragongo, one of Africa’s most active and dangerous volcanoes that lies just west of the Rwandan border, erupted in 2002, more than 100 people were killed, 12,000–15,000 homes were destroyed and thousands escaped to the city of Bukavu, 120 kilometres from Nyiragongo. I volunteered there for a year to give displaced students free chemistry lessons. Over time, I developed a passion for addressing the safety concerns posed by volcanoes. In 2008, as soon as I finished my master’s degree in chemistry from the Higher Pedagogical Institute of Bukavu, a volcanic earthquake hit the Kivu region. Dozens were killed, and thousands lost homes. Since 2009, I have been working at the Goma Volcano Observatory in North Kivu, where instability reigns and gunshots can be heard clearly every day. I obtained a PhD in geochemistry from the University of Campania Luigi Vanvitelli in Caserta, Italy, in 2016.

Four days after the Nyiragongo eruption Charles Balagizi was in the region, and here he eats lunch with others.

Charles Balagizi and his colleagues break for lunch while conducting fieldwork four days after Mount Nyiragongo erupted in May 2021.Credit: Dr Charles Balagizi

I work in a multidisciplinary team that includes both local and foreign scientists and technicians. One of our biggest concerns is the armed parties that control our routes into the field — we hope that they will identify us as scientists who pose no threat to them.

Our car is white, with the observatory’s name painted in bright cyan on both sides — on seeing it, the idea is that these people know who we are and why we come. We try to stay close to the car. But unfortunately, there are times when we must go on foot to sites and we fear that we will encounter armed groups who don’t know about the nature of our work; in these cases we are at risk of suspicion and kidnapping.

Sometimes, without warning, armed groups can start fighting where I’m working. So my safety depends greatly on making sure I’m not in the wrong place at the wrong time. We have local collaborators in most of the villages. I call them in advance to work out the security situation where we are planning to drive, hike or work. Based on that information, we decide whether to go or not.

Field researchers in conflict areas shouldn’t feel overly reassured by encouraging security reports. Situations can shift rapidly, so constant caution must be exercised in the field. Researchers should pay attention to what is happening in surrounding areas and any oncoming vehicles or individuals they meet.

When there are considerable security concerns, such as at sites across Virunga National Park — a 7,800-square kilometre UNESCO World Heritage site that sits in North Kivu province and borders Rwanda and Uganda — we go with armed park rangers. Some of those rangers who accompanied me on my frequent trips were killed near our field sites while doing their jobs. One was killed taking a route that I frequently use. We cannot reach Mount Nyiragongo by road nowadays even with rangers because the route to the volcano is on the front line of the fighting. When necessary, we use a helicopter provided by the United Nations to get to places surrounded by armed groups.

Risk and responsibility

It is only a matter of time until Nyiragongo erupts again, seriously threatening millions of Congolese lives. As a volcano geochemist, I feel it is my responsibility to continue observing this hazard, whatever the other security risks. It’s the only way to issue warnings that help to prepare for upcoming eruptions long before they occur.

In addition to monitoring volcano activities, we collect water samples from nearby villages and monitor water quality, and its effects on human health. We concentrate on places where people need to be protected, where they use this water for drinking, cooking and farming. We inform the local authorities immediately when we find water polluted by volcanic gases, ash or lava. I do this work not only because I am passionate about it, but also because I worry about my family who live in Goma. Lake Kivu is affected by volcanic gases, which can pose a hazard to health. Few people understand the extent of the danger. And, for safety reasons, many people have fled combat zones to areas where the volcanic hazards are highest.

Doing fieldwork in highly polarized settings can be emotionally challenging. In particular, I struggle seeing people starving because they cannot cultivate their land or raise livestock owing to the violence. Also, it is incredibly difficult when I have to tell people not to eat vegetables because the food has probably been affected by the ash, small volcanic rocks called scoria or thin strands of volcanic glass called Pele’s hair. Rain and surface water are also affected by these volcanic materials, and I have to tell them that their water is not safe to drink.

Despite these hardships, the local people bravely continue to help and care for each other. This gives me strength to go on, hoping that the violence will end soon, which will allow us to continue our work to reduce the volcanic risks.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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