By Anne Nzouankeu
A mountain of mud garnished with debris of wood and stone lies where there used to be a house reverberating with laughter until a week ago.
Amid the hustle of rescue workers seeking signs of life, Madame Salatou stands looking askance at the havoc wrought by nature and wondering where that happy family might be.
"My sister lived here with her three children. I have had no news of them since Sunday (October 8), so I came here to check," she tells TRT Afrika.
Almost a week after a landslide and flooding ravaged Mbankolo district west of Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, hope of finding survivors in the rubble seems to be dimming with each passing day, hour and minute.
At least seven people are still missing, and Salatou isn't the only one keeping her fingers crossed for good news. Another woman is looking for her two children and a nephew who had come to attend a birthday party in the neighbourhood.
"The provisional death toll is 30, while 20 others were injured. Our teams are working round the clock at the site to try and save as many lives as possible," says battalion chief Bomba Etoundi, coordinating the fire brigade's operation in the area.
Living on the edge
A preliminary investigation has revealed multiple triggers for the landslide, one of which is unscientific and unauthorised construction.
The affected houses were all built at the foot of Mont Mbankolo, a landmark hill with an elevation of more than 1,000 metres. A watercourse that originally cascaded down the slopes was tamed by constructing a retaining wall, forming a stagnant lake at the bottom.
"People started to build at places through which water used to flow, and therein lies the problem," explains Etoundi.
Torrential rain in Yaoundé on two successive nights starting October 8 seemingly triggered a disaster waiting to happen.
"As a result of the downpour, the amount of water accumulated in the lake increased, and the retaining wall could not withstand the pressure of the water. As it gave way, the water level rose, overflowed and ravaged all the houses in its path," says Etoundi.
Residents of the devastated neighbourhood recall with horror how the events unfolded. "Around 6.30pm, we heard a loud noise — as if a large stone was falling on our heads. Suddenly, we were battling a flood. The lake above us broke loose and swept away my sister-in-law and three children," says Virginie Tchaleng.
"I didn't even have a chance to warn those living next door. My children and I barely escaped with the help of other neighbours."
Belated realisation Virginie recounts that when she and her family settled there in 2013, the lake already existed and that residents of the neighbourhood would breed fish in it.
"We never knew this site was at risk," she tells TRT Afrika.
Célestine Ketcha Courtes, Cameroon's minister for housing, admits after a visit to the area that compliance with construction guidelines needs to be more strictly enforced.
"The loss of life is sad, and we send our sincere condolences to the affected families," she says. "The first thing to note is that access to the water has been blocked. The waterbed has been occupied, too. When water has to go through, it finds a way."
The minister has promised to "limit the anarchic construction that produces such effects" by making land-use documentation mandatory.
"Very often, these houses have no building permit, no land title, or have been built without adhering to building standards. We regularly raise public awareness about the need to comply with town-planning regulations," she says.
"People need to obtain a building permit before constructing anything. We will ensure that local people and property developers adopt building standards."
This isn't the first time lax adherence to building rules has triggered a disaster in Cameroon. In less than a year, almost 100 people died due to unplanned construction. Before Mbankolo, a landslide in Damas district killed 15 people.
In July, two buildings collapsed in Douala, costing 37 lives. The same month, a building collapsed in Limbé, killing two people.
Atanga Nji, the minister of territorial administration, says the immediate objective is to save as many lives as possible, organise security at the site, raise awareness among the local population and evict them from non-constructible areas.
Housing minister Ketcha Courtes has announced "a system to prevent squatter settlements" that focuses on making people aware of the risks of occupying areas unsuitable for construction.
"We are asking people to help us by reporting buildings that appear to be at risk so that we can demolish these and prevent tragedies," she says.
In Mbankolo, the 60-odd families that lost their homes are sheltered at a neighbouring district social centre. Rebuilding their lives may not be easy, but for now, they are all grateful to be alive and, hopefully, wiser for the brush with disaster.