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Poisonous Gas Is Gone, but Cloud of Doubt Still Hangs Over Cameroon's Lake Nios

January 25, 1987|BABACAR DIACK | Reuters

WUM, Cameroon — The deadly cloud of poisonous gases that rose from a Cameroon lake five months ago has long cleared, but tragedy lingers for about 5,000 displaced survivors who have been resettled temporarily in refugee camps and can only wonder whether they will ever return home.

The gases burst out of Lake Nios last August in the worst known incident of its kind, killing 1,743 people. Teams of experts who flocked to the area in the weeks after the catastrophe disagree over what caused the gas leak.

The West African state has appealed for more international aid to improve facilities in local villages where displaced people have been resettled.

The survivors want to return to the lush and fertile hills surrounding the lake. But the Cameroonian government, not yet satisfied that there will be no repetition of the disastrous eruption, is reluctant to allow them to go home.

Experts disagree over whether the lake area, in the English-speaking zone of northwestern Cameroon, can ever be inhabited again.

France's leading volcanologist, Haroun Tazieff, has said that similar gas leaks could occur and could not be forecast.

But Felix Tchoua, the head of Yaounde University's volcanology department, disagrees. "There is no problem with people returning to the zone," he said. "I am very skeptical about the risks of a repeat."

Tchoua said he does not believe that the leak was caused by volcanic activity, which normally would last several weeks and would leave such telltale signs as pulverized lake rocks.

But even if scientists decide that there is no risk of a future gas escape, resettlement soon is unlikely.

The gas killed thousands of animals, and about 6,000 unburied carcasses rotted and polluted Lake Nios.

Meanwhile herders and farmers, now living in tents provided by international aid organizations, complain of poor conditions and forced idleness at the seven refugee camps around the town of Wum.

Conditions are Spartan and there is little to do but weep for dead relatives and hope for an unlikely return home.

Children under 15 make up 60% of the displaced population at the camps, where food is adequate but water is scarce. Because of a shortage of beds, many are forced to sleep on the ground in overcrowded tents.

Many youngsters have been separated from their parents and housed at Wum's Roman Catholic mission. They complain bitterly about having to walk four miles to school every day.

Mamadou, 12, wept as he described how he walked past his house in the ghost village of Subum, one of several affected by the disaster, on his way to and from school each day.

He gave up the idea of regularly visiting his parents, who have been settled temporarily in a refugee camp at Kimbi, 45 miles away. Mamadou said he had no money for the bus trip and it once took him three days to walk to Kimbi.

Local authorities do not hold out much hope that the refugees will be able to move back to the lake area and are weighing more permanent solutions away from the danger zone.

"There is no lack of land where these people could settle permanently in northwestern Cameroon," Andre Marie Ndongo, an assistant to a senior Wum official, said.

The problem is that the available land is in more arid areas and not half as fertile as the lush hills the refugees left behind, he said.

"Our immediate problem is to resist pressure from the refugees and explain to them that the area will not be fit for living for some time," he said.

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