By Larry Madowo, Saskya Vandoorne and Niamh Kennedy, CNN
(CNN) – At least 31 people have died and hundreds of children were feared missing or separated from their families Monday after Mount Nyiragongo erupted in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) over the weekend.
Government spokesman Patrick Muyaya confirmed the updated death toll in a statement Monday, adding it would probably rise as first responders are still searching for people.
Nine people died in a car accident as they tried to flee, four people died while trying to escape a prison and two people died from burns, Muyaya said in an earlier statement on Sunday.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said that children were lost amid the chaos as residents fled the nearby city of Goma on Saturday. More than 150 children have been separated from their families and more than 170 children are feared to be missing, the agency said.
Around 8,000 people crossed into Rwanda from the DRC to seek refuge following the eruption, with some returning back a day later, Rwanda’s Emergency Management Ministry said. Thousands of residents in Goma spent Saturday night outdoors following the eruption, according to a Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) spokesperson.
A DRC government spokesperson told CNN Monday that they have not officially advised those who evacuated their homes to return, as seismic activity continues to be recorded at the volcano.
Evacuees walked toward Rwanda on Saturday, Tom Peyre-Costa, NRC’s spokesperson for west and central Africa said Sunday. The border was closed, so they went back to Goma and headed to an area north of the city. Peyre-Costa posted to Twitter video of people leaving the city.
“Everywhere in the city you see people walking with their belongings, their children and even their goats and whatever they could grab. Most of them are just sitting by the road waiting to be able to go back any time soon,” Peyre-Costa said.
But hundreds could return to find damaged homes and dangerous shortages of water and electricity, UNICEF said.
The children’s agency has sent a team to the area to work on limiting the spread of cholera. It is also establishing two transit centers for unaccompanied and separated children, in collaboration with the local DRC authorities.
The volcano began erupting at 6 p.m. local time Saturday and finally slowed down at 4 a.m. Sunday, according to a statement from the government. The lava stopped just 1.2 kilometers (approximately 0.7 miles) from Goma’s gates, it said.
Volcanologist Honore Chiraba of the Goma Volcano Observatory told CNN there are two fractures in the volcano. The eruption was caused when fractures opened in the volcano’s side, causing the lava to flow in various directions, Reuters reported.
Goma, situated on the edge of Lake Kivu on the DRC border with Rwanda, is home to approximately 670,000 people, according to a projection by the UN, World Bank and others — however a number of nongovernmental organizations in the region place that population closer to 1 million.
Residents fleeing fiery scenes on Saturday headed towards the locality of Sake, or in the direction of neighboring Rwanda, the government statement said. In total, 17 villages were hit, including Buhene, Katoyi and Majengo, the government statement said.
Six-hundred homes around Goma have been destroyed and five schools flattened, according to NRC estimates.Speaking from Buhene, Theophile Tulinabo, who fled his home after the eruption, told CNN: “We didn’t expect these kinds of things which just happened to us…where are we going to live now? At the moment, we don’t know.”
Furaha Grace, another resident speaking to CNN in Buhene, said she was in the local market when she had to run from the eruption.
“When we returned to the city, the houses were burnt and some people were left destitute. I got into an accident and got hurt,” she said, adding an appeal for assistance and food.
Three health establishments, one school, a slaughterhouse and a water pipeline in the region were also affected, the government statement said.
The death toll is expected to “rise considerably,” Reuters reported Sunday.
Ernestine Kabuo, 68, told Reuters that she had tried to carry her sick husband from their house as the lava approached, but he was too unwell to leave.
“I said to myself, I can’t go alone, we’ve been married for the best and for the worst,” Kabuo told Reuters. “I went back to at least try to get him out but couldn’t. I ran away and he got burned inside. I don’t know what to do. I curse this day,” she said.
Mount Nyiragongo’s last major eruption in 2002 killed 250 people and displaced thousands.
The 3,470 meter (approximately 11,385 feet) volcano is one of several near the DRC’s border with Rwanda and Uganda, an area of tropical rain forest and rare mountain gorillas.
CNN’s Samantha Beech, Susanna Capelouto, Jennifer Hauser, Eoin McSweeney and Rob Iddiols contributed to this report.