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Cameroon the Lake of Death

11 minute read
Jill Smolowe

The only warning was a nocturnal rumble that resembled distant thunder. Then a silent plume of colorless gas shot up from the turbulent depths of Lake Nios, just inside Cameroon’s northwest border. Within minutes, the heavy fumes of carbon dioxide burst over the rim and sank into the valley below, enveloping sleepy hamlets in a deadly bubble. Villagers who had already bedded down for the night quietly suffocated in their sleep.

Others tried to outrun the deadly cloud, overturning tables, chairs and cooking pots as they fled their mudbrick huts. Some desperately stripped off their dresses and shirts to escape the burning caused by the gas. Later they were found only yards from their crumpled clothes, overcome by asphyxiation. “I saw people dying, people dead all around,” recalled Ephrem Ngong Kum, 24, of Su-Bum, a village some 200 miles northwest of Yaounde, Cameroon’s capital. “They died in the houses, in streets, outside the forest, in the stream.” Fellow Villager Chia David Wambong remembered a warm feeling, as if he were drunk. “Everyone started to cough, and some people vomited blood,” he said. “I saw people on the ground screaming. Everyone was crying.” When the cloud lifted, there were few survivors to mourn the dead.

It will never be known how many died in probably the worst natural calamity ever to strike the quiet west African country. The U.N. Disaster Relief coordinator in Geneva put the toll at 1,746, but the number may be far higher. National army units, fearing an epidemic, quickly buried the decomposing bodies, never pausing to keep count. More corpses were hastily buried by kin from neighboring villages. “There are mass graves because we only had a few laborers, and we could not dig individual graves,” Lieut. General James Tataw, commander of the rescue operation, told reporters. “Those who have individual graves, those were dug for them by their relatives. The cows have no relatives, so their burial will be last.”

By week’s end the Cameroon army had laid to rest most of the populations of the three hardest-hit villages: Nios, Su-Bum and Cha. At least 300 people, many of them farmers from the surrounding hills, clogged the area’s few hospitals, sharing beds with other victims while they awaited treatment for shock and burns. Perhaps another 3,000 refugees, displaced from their homes on the fringes of the affected 10-sq.-mi. area, were evacuated by army troops. All told, it was estimated that 20,000 lives were upended by the freakish disaster that was aptly, if ineloquently described by M. Peter McPherson, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, as a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not event.”

Meanwhile, the Cameroon army struggled to navigate bulldozers over the precipitous mountain climbs and into the villages to dig graves for the dead livestock. But the primitive dirt tracks, which provide the only access to the hamlets for some 40 miles around, were muddied by pelting rains. Therefore the burials were slowed considerably while troops laboriously dug the graves by hand. Officials began to fear that the bloated carcasses of cows, goats, pigs and chickens rotting in the equatorial heat would lead to a cholera or typhoid epidemic. Army efforts were further hampered by the handful of survivors who refused to leave their lifeless villages. In Cha, Kumba Ndongabang sat beneath a thatched platform, staring at the two graves where his five wives are now buried. “All my women die,” he grieved, his voice rising and falling with the simple rhythms of the native Pidgin English. “If I go, who make home for me? Where I go? Where I find home? Where life?”

Despite government efforts to seal off the remote villages, a few local tribespeople insisted on returning at midweek to the lands farmed by their ancestors. Their homecoming could not have been a happy one. As the Rev. Fred Tern Horn, a Dutch priest who serves in the area, described the scene, “it was as though a neutron bomb had exploded.” All of the huts and buildings remained intact, and the mountains and tropical forests appeared unscathed. But almost no life stirred for miles around.

Lake Nios, affectionately dubbed the “good lake” by local residents, no longer shimmered a welcoming blue. Instead, the waters had turned a drab shade of reddish-brown, clay having been churned from the lemon-shaped lake’s depths. The village that shares the lake’s name showed no signs of life, save the rescue crews. Of the hamlet’s almost 1,200 residents, only four, including a woman and her child, are believed to have survived. Five miles away in Su- Bum, army troops found a scrawny chicken dancing a macabre two-step atop a freshly dug family grave. “All the people, the goats, the pigs and the cows died,” said Lieut. General Tataw. “What surprises me is how that chicken survived.”

More miraculous, so did a handful of villagers who haltingly recounted the tale of the poisonous cloud. Sometime between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. on Aug. 21, families were finishing their evening meal and settling down for the night when the volcanic lake bed erupted. Some villagers remembered hearing a distant sound. Then a strange odor permeated their huts. “It was like burned gunpowder,” suggested one survivor. Another likened it to “eggs, bad eggs.” When villagers began to feel dizzy, panic set in. People who were not killed immediately fled into the dirt streets. Many were later found in the bush, their hands vainly clasped over their noses and mouths.

Even the few who survived were knocked unconscious for what they believe was hours. When they awoke, they found the nightmare had only just begun. “Oh, they die plenty!” cried Peter Sam Kinbi, 42, of Su-Bum. “You go to one compound, and they all finished. You go to another compound, and there is one man and maybe one child living. They all dead. When you touch them, they be like stone and they be white spot (dried spittle) on they mouths and on the ground. My wife, my six children, all dead.”

Word of the tragedy did not reach the town of Wum, just ten miles west, until late the next afternoon. A government employee who had been motorcycling to Nios from Wum first discovered the disaster. When he came upon a dead antelope, he thought he had had a stroke of luck, and happily strapped the animal to his bike. But when he got closer to Nios, the impact of what had happened struck him as he saw more and more bodies of people and animals. Fighting back dizziness, he returned to Wum. Late that day, his ghastly report finally reached Yaounde.

Even then, officials did not grasp the enormity of the problem. They apparently assumed that the fallout from Nios would be no more severe than a similar incident two years ago (see box). Moreover, authorities were distracted by the impending arrival of Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, the first such visit by an Israeli head of government to a black African state in 20 years. Although Peres and Cameroon President Paul Biya signed an agreement renewing diplomatic relations, their meeting was quickly upstaged by the drama evolving on the northwestern border.

Indeed, Peres’ visit may be remembered less for any savvy statesmanship than for his swift response to the emergency. Just three hours before Peres was to make his flight from Tel Aviv to Yaounde, the first reports of the gas disaster began to circulate outside Cameroon. Half a ton of medical supplies was promptly loaded onto the Prime Minister’s Israeli air force Boeing 707, and a 17-member army medical team was hastily assembled to accompany the official party. Although the Israeli group landed in Yaounde last Monday, the crude internal travel conditions made it impossible for the medics to reach victims hospitalized in Nkambe, some 60 miles from the disaster zone, for another two days.

By then a full international relief effort was under way. Washington dispatched two crews of scientists and physicians to the disaster site, one team assigned to identify the specific gas involved in the catastrophe, the other to study what had happened and determine whether a recurrence was possible. The $250,000 U.S. aid package, which included tents and food supplies, came in response to a request from Biya for assistance. Canada, Britain, West Germany and Spain also responded to the call, sending money and tons of medical and food supplies. Cameroonian officials, as unsettled by the onslaught of relief aid as by the crisis itself, quickly set up a national disaster committee. “Our first priority,” announced Committee Chairman Jean Marcel Mengueme, “is to set our priorities.”

A top one was to provide immediate shelter, food and consolation for the refugees who continued to stream out of the afflicted hillside settlements. Late last week army vehicles, Land Rovers and pickup trucks moaned up and down the rain-sodden paths, shuttling evacuees and their possessions to Wum and Nkambe, where doctors, social workers and such conveniences as running water, electricity and telephones awaited.

Many tribespeople made the journey on foot, juggling colorfully wrapped loads of household goods on their heads. Along the way, dead cows and birds dotted the hills. Some refugees tucked cotton in their nostrils to dampen the sickening stench of decomposing animals. The surviving white Brahman cattle lumbered dumbly at the sides of the columns, responding sleepily to the harried urgings of herdsmen carrying long, thick sticks.

Certainly, the various medical specialists will want to know why some villagers and animals were able to survive the deadly cloud. Colonel Michael Wiener, the physician who headed the Israeli medical team, speculated that survivors may have been positioned in air currents that somehow escaped contamination. At least one survivor’s good fortune involved more than plain luck. Dennis Chin of Su-Bum told reporters that he had been lying on his bed when the choking gas descended. As he gasped for air, Chin dragged himself to a windowless shed behind his house, where presumably there was enough oxygen to enable him to wait out the calamity.

It is uncertain what the long-term health effects of the gas will be on people in the region. Chin’s fellow villager, Wambong, for instance, has yet to recover feeling on one side of his body. Most of the survivors, however, seem to be in fairly good condition. Despite the fact that there are lingering respiratory problems, doctors say the worst is over. Still, secondary infections are anticipated. Indeed, by week’s end one Israeli medic had treated at least 50 cases of pneumonia, and more were expected to follow.

The economic costs of the tragedy are difficult to calculate. The impact on the immediate area is likely to be devastating, although the effect on the entire country will be minimal. Compared with most of its fellow African states, Cameroon is well off. As a leading exporter of coffee and cocoa, the California-size land is one of the most economically stable countries on the continent. While much of Africa is hunger plagued, Cameroon (named by Portuguese settlers after the camaroes, or large pink prawns, found in vast quantities off the country’s Atlantic coast) has achieved virtual agricultural self-sufficiency.

The country’s 10 million people enjoy a per capita annual income of $820, more than four times that of Africa’s poorest countries. Strong economic ties to the U.S. and other Western countries have further enhanced Cameroon’s well- being. An enduring link with France, one of its many former colonial overseers, has enabled the country to develop its oil reserves.

But the gas disaster could be a blow to the area’s agricultural output. The noxious cloud settled over fecund farmland, and the long-term costs could be significant. “The farmers here were famous,” said an official from the Wum Area Development Authority. “They grew good crops and healthy cattle. This is a rich valley. The farms are the best in the whole region.” Unfortunately, the lands surrounding Lake Nios may have to be evacuated permanently if scientists determine that a recurrence seems likely.

For now, the villages still seem haunted by the ghostly reminders of what used to be. Children’s toys and clothes litter the huts, bicycles lean carelessly against back walls, stew cakes in pots, crumpled bed sheets still bear the impress of daily life. But in the now deserted streets, no men chatter. No women call to their children. No chickens squawk. No insects buzz. “The silence is so deep,” whispers a visitor to a relief worker. “I try not to listen,” the medic responds. Yet it is all but impossible not to hear the echoes of the tragedy.

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