"We've been sick since 1965"

Joe Bavier, News24.com, September 14, 2006
Abidjan – A child crouches at the summit of a mountain of garbage at the Akouedo landfill on the outskirts of Ivory Coast’s commercial capital, scouring through the rubbish for something useful or saleable, an eerie silhouette on the horizon between sky and trash.
The more than 100-hectare garbage dump was one of about a dozen sites around the heavily-populated city, where tanker trucks were believed to have pumped out about 528-thousand litres of liquid chemical waste more than three weeks ago.
A 30-year-old Paul Sieh said: “When they first started dumping, many people stopped working in the landfill. They sensed something was going wrong here.
“But, those who are having problems with their rent now, they don’t know what to do. They have to come and look for something to feed their families and take care of themselves. They don’t care about their lives.”
16,000 people need medical treatment
By the end of Wednesday, government health officials announced that nearly 16 000 people had sought medical treatment for symptoms believed to be linked to the illegal dumping of the toxic waste, offloaded from a ship chartered by the Dutch-based company, Trafigura Beheer BV.
At least six people had so far died of their illnesses. Last week, the government of Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny resigned over the scandal.
But, for the residents of Akouedo village, whose boundaries were intertwined with those of the landfill, the events were just the latest in a long history of suffering village leaders said was killing them slowly, but surely.
The Akouedo site, the main landfill for Abidjan’s population of around five million, opened 41 years ago. As Abidjan grew, so did the heaps of trash. Since civil war broke out in Ivory Coast four years ago, the city had ballooned in size to accommodate an untold number of internal refugees. It didn’t take long for the effects to be felt in the village.
One villager said: “People die everyday here. Old people and children die from things like typhoid and yellow fever.”
Akouedo ‘has abnormally-high prevalence of illness’
According to the village’s own census, from a population of about 5 000, Akouedo had only one resident over the age of 70, and only 30 had made it to their sixties.
The already abnormally-high prevalence of illness in Akouedo had even made it difficult for village leaders to come up with reliable figures for those affected by the toxic waste.
A village elder Mathieu Aguede said: “All of us are sick. We’ve been sick since 1965.”
In recent years, the village had made repeated attempts to have the landfill closed. Residents had petitioned the government and held round-table talks with officials.
A site was even chosen for a new dump to replace Akouedo, but the move was blocked by residents of the proposed new dump location. Aguede said: “The state has sacrificed us.”
However, others in the village saw things differently. Sieh said: “It’s going to be hard. Many times they’ve started procedures to close this dump site down. But, someone always comes and talks to the village chiefs, bribes them with a little money. And the trucks keep coming.”
On August 19, the villagers took matters into their own hands. As the last of the tanker trucks carrying the toxic waste attempted to enter the Akouedo landfill, it was surrounded by angry local residents. The driver fled.
But, the freshly-painted truck, owned by a new company many believed was set up expressly for the purpose of illegally disposing of the dangerous cargo, remained parked, near the entrance to the garbage dump, a symbol to Akouedo’s desperate insurrection.
Barricades were quickly erected along the road leading to the site, and, for three weeks now, the incessant drone of trucks coming and going had stopped. The residents of Akouedo hoped the new-found silence was for good.
One village resident said: “We’ve set up our wall. No trucks can come in or out. This place will have to close now, definitively.”

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