Destroyed shelters, destroyed lives

By Susanne Trachsel

They are called favelas in Sao Paulo, conventillos in Quito, intra-murios in Rabat, katchi abadis in Karachi. Here in Cameroon, they are called bidonvilles or slums, depending in which part of the country you live. In these extremely poor neighbourhoods, access to potable water and sanitarian installations is difficult; thus, it is not uncommon to see a rat running around caldron in which ndolé slowly simmers.

According to the United Nations, in 2001, 921 million people were living in slums. These neighbourhoods host 78.2% of the urban population of the poorest countries. These slums bring shadow over the images of the cities and the chic neighbourhoods.

In Zimbabwe, 700 000 people living in slums found themselves homeless after authorities’ operations “Get Rid of the Garbage” and “Rehabilitate Order” took place (UN Habitat:2005). Motivated by the government’s concern over establishing order in the chaotic urban areas, these expulsions and destructions violated international laws. In fact, these actions were largely denounced by international communities and organisations, such as the UN.

The uproar brought by the destruction of the slums in Zimbabwe doesn’t seem to discourage other African countries from doing the same, in total indifference. Moreover, the noise of the bulldozers, which raze the downhill neighbourhoods in Yaounde, doesn’t seem to find any echo.

In Cameroon, thousands of people have seen their houses destroyed and hundreds of others will undergo the same violence. “One day they came with an eviction notice, and the following morning, they came with their machines and destroyed everything, including banana and avocado trees, everything.” says Ms. Edzogo, resident of a partly destroyed neighbourhood in Yaounde.

The authorities of the city of Yaounde justify theses demolitions with the fact that their inhabitants illegally occupy the land that belongs to the State. The Director of the Technical Services of the city, M. Ndzana, explains that “… the rules are there, they have got to be respected.” However, the rules, very few conform to them. According to the Harvard Law Review, 85% of the urban residents of the developing countries occupy the land illegally[1].

In Yaounde, eight out of ten people don’t hold a property title, nor a construction permit. Does that mean that all of Yaounde should be destroyed? No, “it is the swampy areas that we are destroying, because they belong to the State and they are dangerous” replies M. Ndzana.

Curiously, some residents of the swampy areas possess documents signed by the subprefect of the city and stamped by the Republic of Cameroon, confirming that they are the property-owners of a piece of land: “I bought the land from a previous property-owner. He showed me the papers: an attestation of ownership, so I trusted the authorities.”, says M. Bendegue.

A previous high-ranker in the state’s administration, to whom we promised anonymity, explains that “These documents are not worth a thing, they are even illegal”. Nonetheless, Mr. Bedengue has paid property taxes during fifteen years before the State destroyed his house, which he built with his lifetime savings.

According to Mike Davis, author of the article Planet of Slums, “The local and national political machines usually tolerate illegal housing as long as it can generate profit[2].” This situation can easily be explained in a country that ranks number six in the list of most corrupted countries in the world (Transparency International 2005).

During the last International Day for human shelters, asserted by the United Nations on every first Monday of October, Kofi Annan declared that “Slums are the result of misguided public policies …destructions and evictions are not solutions ». According to the previous high-ranking state employee we interviewed, it is “…the non-existence of a planning culture and lack of political willingness that explains the existence of these neighbourhoods in Yaounde”.

The members of the Bendegue family now live in front of their little business, outside, in a shelter made out of a plastic shield. Every day, they ask their neighbor for water. Mr. Bendegue has tried to explain his situation to the authorities through letters, but has never received an answer. With resignation, he tells me “The State is like God, the State is a force, when the State decides, whether it is right or wrong, it takes action. The State destroys its population.”

Not knowing where to go, Justin has decided to build a shelter at the very same place where the bulldozers destroyed his house: “What do you want me to do, with my kids, I have no job, I have no money…my house is everything I had. I know they will come back to evict me again.” Where will Justin and his family then go? “I don’t know. My house is my grave. »

To legitimize the destruction of the slums in the swampy areas, Cameroon’s authorities remind us that the first role of a State is to protect its citizens. But when it comes to the hundreds of people that are thrown out on the streets by this same State, it is the respect of the law that becomes the legitimizing argument. While all of these political games are going on, hundreds of families have no shelter and are deprived of their fundamental human right and basic need, without any voice to denounce their situation.

I never went back to see if Justin and his family were still living in what used to be their neighborhood, and which has now become a « no man’s land »…

[1] In Davis Mike, Planet of slums, New Left Review, Mar-Apr 2004, pp.5-34

[2] Ibid