YAOUNDE, Centre–Shimon Peres, who is laid to rest today, will be remembered here for his visit to Cameroon on the heels of the Lake Nyos Gas disaster of August 21, 2016; and the conspiracy theories that claimed the poison gas was an Israeli neutron bomb test.
Peres served Israel as president and prime minister and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. He suffered a massive stroke on September 13 and died September 28, just over 30 years since the Lake Nyos disaster. He was 93.
Peres’ arrival in Cameroon as prime minister on August 25, 1996 with a plane-load of medical provisions and personnel days after the Lake Nyos gas disaster fuelled a “perfect coincidence theory” that wondered how the Israeli leader could have mobilized the men and material at such short notice if he did not know beforehand that the explosion would happen. An American blogger claimed at the time that the Israelis were preparing a response to the disaster even before the Cameroonian government was aware of it.
The suspicions first arose from the fold of scientists, who questioned claims that the poison gas was from natural explosion of carbon-dioxide trapped beneath the lake. An ecologist at the University of Michigan, George Kling, said “It was one of the most baffling disasters scientists have ever investigated. Lakes just don’t rise up and wipe out thousands of people.”
Victims of a similar “gas leakage” at Lake Monoun in the neighbouring West Region within the same volcanic system “suffered vomiting, paralysis, and very rapid death; some lost the outer layers of their skin.” Some said these reactions were similar to neutron bomb effects. The Lake Monoun disaster nearly exactly two years earlier left 37 dead.
The mystery surrounding the gas explosion that claimed over 1,800 human lives and 3,500 livestock within 25km radius of Lake Nyos appeared to justify suspicion that the explosion resulted from a secret bomb test and by none other than the Israelis.
Western media reports did not totally ignore such theories, even if not to support them. According to an August 26, 1986, article in the Washington Post, “Reporters in the area described it as looking like the aftermath of a neutron bomb, with damage only to living things, and no visible effect on the village huts and other buildings.”
A New York Times story the same day also said, “When Prime Minister Shimon Peres arrived from Israel for a one-day visit on the restoration of Israeli-Cameroon relations, he brought with him a 17-member medical team along with tons of medical supplies. The Israeli team went straight to the Nios area as soon as it arrived this morning.”
An American blogger writing in “Spike The News Blog” left little to doubt: “Some doctors from Israel went, and they got on the plane with Peres before the incident was known to the government in Cameroon. If you take a look at the timing, they got on to go over there to look into an incident that, at least by all official accounts, the government didn’t know anything of. They leave Thursday night, and Friday morning they get the report.”
Local writers also energised the conspirators. Cameroonian writer Tande Dibussi, quotes journalist Ntemfac Ofege in his blog “Scribbles from The Den” as saying, “Mr. Biya has also not reacted to a Denis Sassou Nguessou interview published in a San Francisco newspaper suggesting that the Lake Nyos gas explosion was an Israeli thermonuclear device. Mr. Sassou Nguessou said in that interview that he was approached by the Israeli to test the device in his country and he said no. Mr. Biya apparently accepted the indecent proposition.”
But Dr Ralph Diffang, a geophysicist who worked in the Ministry of Mines directly involved with the crisis when it occurred, said without any doubt, it was a natural gas explosion.
Similarly, Pius Melloh, a retired senior mining technician in the same ministry and member of the technical team that carried out the first investigations after the tragedy along with Japanese, French and American scientists, debunks the “perfect coincidence” theory. He said, “Those who believe it was a bomb should go and explain why gas is still coming out of the lake after about 15 years of degassing.”
Mello said their tests proved there was gas beneath the lake at between 70-80m below the lake bed. The 210m deep lake is 3km long and 1km wide.
“After inserting tubes beneath the lake and using water pumps to suck, gas came out like champagne. That proved there was gas beneath and our tubes are still there and gas is still coming out. Do bombs produce gas over such a long period of time?” he wondered.
In the same light earlier, in a 2011 BBC article, journalist Omer Songwe quoted Cameroonian government officials as saying “that the degassing of the lake should finally quell rumours that have persisted in Cameroon that the explosion could have been a neutron bomb test carried out by Israelis and Americans.”
Concluding one part in a series of analysis marking the 20th anniversary of the disaster, Dibussi wrote:
Evidently, if the timeline as presented by the conspiracy theorists is correct, then the presence of the Israeli team is hard to explain and merits closer scrutiny. But is this timeline correct? In an attempt to answer this key question, I spent some time looking at news reports from 20 years ago about the disaster and the visit of the Israeli Prime Minister to Cameroon.
According to news reports and stories from survivors, the explosion happened on the night of Thursday August 21, 1986, around 9:00 p.m. It wasn’t until Saturday August 23rd that the first group of outsiders, led by Reverend Father Tenhorn, arrived on the scene and began burying the victims. And it would be another 24 hours before the national and international community became aware of what had occurred in Nyos. And as soon as news of the disaster broke, the international mobilization began.
According to a BBC report at the time:
“Scientists from the United States and France are on their way to investigate the lake. They will bring with them rescue teams and emergency aid to help the survivors. The US has pledged $25,000 in immediate aid, while France, Britain and other Western European countries have promised logistical support. The Israeli Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, has said he will not cancel his state visit to Cameroon, due to start on Monday … He said he would be bringing a medical team and equipment for treating the victims.”
Prime Minister Shimon Peres did arrive in Cameroon on Monday August 25 with the Israeli medical and scientific team as planned exactly four days after the explosion – enough time for the Israelis to put together a complete medical and scientific team. And the Medical team was still holed up in Bamenda 24 hours after it arrived in Cameroon. A Washington Post report filed from Yaounde on August 26, 1986 was categorical on this point:
“No foreign disaster team has yet reached the lakeside area. An Israeli medical team, which arrived here yesterday with Prime Minister Shimon Peres, was waiting this morning in the provincial capital of Bamenda, about 40 miles from the lake. Although the team plans to set a field hospital closer to the site, officials acknowledged that the fatality rate was so high that there was little they could do beyond treating a relatively small number of injured survivors.”
Franklin Sone Bayen is a journalist and media researcher. He has been a visiting journalist to Israel on the Mashav program.