Tang Augustine buried his father, brother, and sister the day after a toxic gas leak from a volcanic lake killed more than half the people of his village. Now, a month after the eruption of Lake Nios that killed 1,700, Mr. Augustine has only the clothes he wore when he fled. Like many of the thousands of refugees, Augustine, a secretary for a local food cooperative, faces an unclear future.
``We know we can't go back there because we see that the place is no good. There are no people there,'' he says. ``The government will have to tell us what to do.''
As teams of scientists from three continents pore over the volcanic rocks and lakes of the region seeking clues about the leak, relief efforts have been slow. Thousands of tons of food, equipment, and medical supplies have poured in. But the government has had difficulty getting materiel to the estimated 4,500 refugees, who are scattered in temporary camps over a 1,000-square-mile isolated area.
Walson Mboe Ntuba, the governor of the northwest province, blamed the delays on a lack of rugged-terrain vehicles and gasoline and the poorly constructed dirt road leading to the relief centers which rain has made virtually impassable in some areas.
Workers in the disaster area blame the government.
``There's been a lot of quarreling among officials,'' says the Rev. Fred Tern Horn, who runs the Roman Catholic mission here, where 225 refugees are being sheltered and fed, largely with food the mission bought.
The government is struggling to provide even a short-term solution to the refugee problem. Quasi-permanent housing is being sought for the resettlement camps and local families have been lining up to adopt orphans.
Governor Ntuba says the refugees will not be allowed to resettle near the lake. But, he adds, the area may be opened in the future to allow them to farm the land, which apparently is suffering no effects from the gas leak that some scientists think contained elements of carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide.
Meanwhile, geologists and chemists are working to determine what caused the 720-foot-deep lake to belch out the toxic gas. A team of American scientists has all but ruled out a volcanic event as the cause. The research is also aimed at determining which of the dozens of other lakes in the 600-mile mountain range may be ripe for an eruption. Officials are wary of the lakes in the region. A smaller gas release two years ago at a lake 80 miles southeast of Nios killed 37 persons.
According to members of a United States Geological Survey team that recently spent two weeks studying six deep lakes in northwest Cameroon, including Nios, testing of gases from the lake bottoms can identify potentially hazardous areas. But predicting when a gas leak might occur is nearly impossible, says team leader John Lockwood. Still, he adds, ``we might be able to give a general forecast.''
A final statement on the cause of the eruption will only follow testing in the US of gas, water, and plant samples, which could take months.
Meanwhile, it is unclear what action, if any, the government can take when all the studies are completed. A monitoring system for the lake region has been suggested. Leaders have stressed the need to educate villagers to look for signs of danger.
Shortly after the disaster, President Paul Biya called for a warning system that would make it possible to detect future gas leaks. But his remarks may have been aimed mainly at calming the nation.
Local observers point out that the same logistical problems that have impeded relief efforts would make it difficult to set up a warning system.