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Cameroon Lake Nyos Disaster Survivors Feel Abandoned

FILE - Dead cattle and surrounding compounds in Nyos village, Sept. 3, 1986. (Credit: USGS)
FILE - Dead cattle and surrounding compounds in Nyos village, Sept. 3, 1986. (Credit: USGS)

On Monday, Cameroon marks 30 years since its worst natural disaster ever, a toxic gas explosion at Lake Nyos in the northwest that killed 2,000 people and 3,500 animals. The victims say they still have not received promised compensation. They also want to return to their homes, but the government says the lake is still toxic.

Lake Nyos and the surrounding land in northwest Cameroon appear to be completely dead. There is no sign of birds or other animals.

The lake was the source of toxic gas 30 years ago that killed by suffocation some 2,000 people and 3,500 livestock animals within 25 kilometers of the lake. Magma under the lake leaks carbon dioxide into the water, and a large cloud of the deadly gas escaped into the air on August 21, 1986.

This camp situated 25 kilometers from the lake is now home to survivors.

Papa Saboum lost his 30-year-old wife at the time and still has fresh memories of what happened to him and his neighbor, a commissioner of police.

“I never saw her on the bed but on the floor. I said how, why has this woman decided to take poison inside this house," he said. "From there I heard the wife of the commissioner crying, saying hey my man eh, my husband eh.”

Residents say when the incident happened, the government of Cameroon promised to assist them by building new houses and giving them money to do farming and raise animals. The survivors say since then, they have been abandoned.

Human toll

Youssouf Mussa, 36, says he can now read and write only because he walked seven kilometers to the nearest school.

“I was six years old when this occurred," he said. "I did my primary school here and there was no secondary school here we had to go to Wum, that is seven kilometers to and from here for five years. At times I did not even have food to eat. I worked very hard and got my advanced level. So many of my school mates dropped out. I was very fortunate.”

Mussa raises nine goats behind his house to take care of his family. He remembers that his father lost two herds of cattle in the disaster.

“Now we don’t have animals but while we were in Nyos, the cows were there,” he said.

But today, 9-year-old Aissatou Wilsa may not be that fortunate. She is unable to cover the seven kilometers to the nearest secondary school because of ill health, yet she has a dream.

“I want to be a nurse if I have the means,” she said.

Lack of health facilities

Besides education, food, electricity and sanitation, the people say they are in need of adequate health facilities.

It has always been the wish of the survivors to return to the villages they left 30 years ago. But Bitta Benoit, an official of Cameroon's Ministry of Territorial Administration, says they still have to persevere.

He says the danger that Lake Nyos and its surrounding villages were exposed to is progressively being reduced because they are degassing the lake. He says it is only when the process is complete and they are sure of the people's safety and security that communities would be allowed to live in the zone.

Benoit refused to comment on the compensation program for the survivors and their children.

The government of Cameroon and some well-wishers do visit the people occasionally to give food to the scores of survivors living in the camp. Camp leader Tcha Ewi says they prefer to be empowered instead of receiving donations each year on the anniversary of the toxic gas explosion.

“Since you are here and you are a big journalist, I wish that you should transmit this to the government. That the government has abandoned us. They will come and give us some bags of rice and oil to eat," said Ewi. "Teach somebody how to catch a fish and don’t be giving him that fish. The government should give scholarships to students who want to study and tomorrow they will come back and build this village. I am not happy with the government.”

The Cameroon government says in the 1980s, the population of Nyos was over 3,000 and growing fast as many people moved to the area for agriculture and cattle ranching. Thirty years after the incident, the population is still estimated at several thousand, but they live far from the killer lake, even though some are ignoring warnings from the government and returning closer to the lake.