Menchum Division — Ismaela Muhamadu was six years old when he lost his parents and siblings in a poisonous gas explosion at northern Cameroon's Lake Nyos. The blast killed more than 1,800 people, and 3,000 cattle and wildlife over a 25-km radius.
But now, 27 years later, the 33-year-old, who has two wives and eight children, is still living in the Upkwa resettlement camp in Menchum Division, North West Region. For almost three decades, the victims of the gas explosion and their descendants, who now number 12,000, have been living in mud huts in seven camps that lack basic health, education and other facilities.
In 1986, Lake Nyos released poisonous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that scientists believe was a result of volcanic activity in the lake.
Adolphe Lele Lafrique, governor of the North West Region and head of Lake Nyos Disaster Local Management Committee, assured state media Cameroon Radio and Television last month that the Lake Nyos victims would soon be returning to the area, but many are sceptical of this promise.
"I don't trust these promises to relocate. I've been 27 years in this camp and we still lack basic necessities such as hospitals, water and sustainable livelihood support. I don't think life there will be any better," Muhamadu told IPS.
Many struggle to survive in these camps. People of these traditionally pastoral communities have been forced to take up farming on small plots of land in order to earn a living.
"As the Boboro people, all we know is cattle grazing. But when we came to the camp we had no other choice than to become farmers, but many cannot survive on farming because Bororo people dislike farming," Salifu Buba, 57, who lives in the Kumfutu camp in Menchum Division told IPS. But he does not want to return to what was once his home.
"I would rather suffer here than die in Nyos. What we need is support, not relocation. We don't have rights to grazing land, the 30 to 50 square metres allotted to each household is not even enough for farming, not to mention grazing," Buba said.
Buba explained that when the community from Lake Nyos was relocated in 1986, the government gave the traditional pastoralists tools and oxen for farming - something they knew very little about.
He thinks the government should have given them a more sustainable solution to their problems by giving each family one or two cows to raise.
At the Ipalim refugee camp opinion differs. Some of the local Bantu community, who are subsistence farmers and depend on the sales of cash crops such as maize, beans, cocoyam and plantains for their livelihoods, are keen to return to Nyos.
Stephen Nju, 47, told IPS: "I would like to go back to the land of abundance, because with the few square metres of land that each family was allotted in the camps, it is difficult to practise farming. We do beg farmland from the community that accepted us here, but we are always regarded as strangers and we have several incidents of farmer-grazer conflicts."
Lydia Nzeh, 55, who is also from Ipalim camp, told IPS that she did not want to remain in the camp as it was very isolated and did not have basic services.
"We learnt that so much work is going on in Nyos to degas the lake and fortify the dam and that the surrounding areas now look so beautiful. But we are still waiting for the promises of returning to Nyos to be realised. This camp site is so isolated, we don't have access roads and health centres."
Many say the announcement to relocate about 80 percent of the 12,000 victims is delusive, that the site is not prepared, nor will it be ready to accommodate victims anytime soon.
David Neng of Environment Watch, a local NGO in Menchum Division, told IPS that the announcement to resettle victims in Nyos is questionable.
"A lot more needs to be done on the infrastructure side such as building infrastructures and public utilities that will accommodate people. Problems related to land rights and the distribution of natural resources to victims and those that rush to settle in Nyos some years after the tragedy need to be solved," Neng said.
Engineers have reduced the gas emanating from this lake to a safe level.
Njilah Isaac Konfor, a geologist and former coordinator of a 2008 to 2010 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Cameroon government project to reintegrate the victims of the lake disaster, said that the gas levels in the lake no longer pose a danger to the community. "The government of Cameroon has made great efforts in degassing the lake and at the moment is using a very sophisticated method to make the area safe for the return of the population," he told IPS.
He, however, questioned the idea of relocating people to the area.
"I have a problem with the announcement to relocate victims to the site, efforts have rather been slow if we consider that the disaster happened 27 years ago and the survivors have been living in these makeshift camps for this long."
A rehabilitation programme for the area was estimated to cost about 43.8 million dollars, and was to be funded by the Cameroon government and its partners, the UNDP and the European Union.
The money was also supposed to cover the cost of providing infrastructure for the rehabilitation and relocation process over five years, beginning in 2007. But the funding parties only committed 16.1 million dollars.
The programme proposed that for the rehabilitation of Lake Nyos, about 500 homes, two markets, five primary schools, two secondary schools, two hospitals, roads, potable water and electricity infrastructures were supposed to be constructed on the site.
Konfor, who visited Nyos two months ago, said none of this has been realised.
But Jeanvier Mvogo from the Department of Civil Protection of the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralisation told IPS: "The disaster management committee simply alerted the victims to prepare their minds that they will be returning. No exact date can be given because work is still going on."