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Demolitions Spark Controversy in Cameroon

More than 7,000 people have been left homeless in Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde, since city officials began tearing down slums to make space for development projects. The city is also cleaning up areas prone to flooding and landslides. The initiative has led to displacement and protests. Voice of America English to Africa Service’s Eugene Nforngwa reports from Yaounde.

Camped on rubble, 47-year-old Daniel Essono is a heartbroken man. In July, he lost his home to the crushing force of two mighty bulldozers. The heavily guarded machines were sent to his neighborhood by the city hall. In a few hours, they flattened an area the size of three football stadiums, leaving thousands homeless.

Three shantytowns have been pulled down this year in what city officials are calling a cleanup operation. When the project is finished, the former slums will be transformed into public gardens or sold to private developers.

City authorities say they fear a calamity in some of the settlements. Many were built on ancient riverbeds and are exposed to a high risk of flooding. Also, many of the city’s poorest residents have lived in the slums for years and have nowhere else to go. Several humanitarian groups now consider them refugees and are providing aid – among them, the U.N. refugee agency and the Cameroon Red Cross.

Critics of the operation have sprung up from all walks of life. In early September, the government banned public debates on the subject planned by a coalition of NGOs.

Over the past three years, Yaounde has been undergoing a transformation never before seen in the country. New roads have been opened, sidewalks have been paved, wild unoccupied lands have been transformed into public gardens and garbage collection has greatly improved.

Plans have been made to improve drainage on the ancient riverbeds to protect new structures against flooding. Authorities call the plan The Paris Dream.

But many say the demolitions are overshadowing these operations. For homeless residents like Daniel Essono, the Paris Dream is a nightmare.

“Only the rich and their children will benefit from the [proposed] gardens," he said. "What we want is shelter and food. When you send us into the streets, you are taking even the little that we have away. You do not expect us to be happy.”

Authorities have promised to resettle some of those who can produce title deeds and building permits. But they make up less than two percent of all the affected residents and it would make very little difference to others losing their homes. The city government says it recognizes the problem but says it cannot resettle most of them because they are squatters.

The demolitions have exposed Yaounde’s long years of chaotic growth. Most of its streets are not paved, and only about 60 percent of the population has access to clean drinking water.

With a population of more than two million, uninhabited land has become scarce and expensive. New slums are springing up every year. And the urban population continues to grow.