Inside the disaster stadium in Cameroon
YAOUNDE, Cameroon – When I left my apartment in Mfandena on Monday morning to cover another day of the Africa Cup of Nations, I knew the heat would be difficult to handle. I knew there would be momentum. And I knew there would be an all-pervading drama.
But I had no idea of the things I would see and the terrified voices I would hear as I returned home more than 13 hours later after the most heartbreaking day in tournament history that left the minus eight dead.
The game between Cameroon and Comoros had continued in front of us in the press box as ambulances transported dozens of people to hospital, all of us inside unconscious and isolated, concentrated on the pitch. The match, which the hosts won, was never called off or even interrupted despite the ongoing away tragedy.
The main story at the start of the day, and indeed one of the most compelling stories in AFCON history, was the confusion and contradiction surrounding the status of Comorian goalkeepers.
Would the tiny islanders – ranked 132nd in the world, playing in their first Nations Cup – really face hosts Cameroon, with no recognized goalscorers? If an outfield player were to start in goal, who would it be? How will he manage?
It’s a testament to the gruesome scenes that unfolded as the night wore on the spectacle on the pitch – Cameroon’s toil, Chaker Alhadhur’s heroism in goal, Nadjim’s controversial first red card Abdou – it all sounds like a footnote to the darkest day of the Nations. History of the Cup.
During the end of the match, full of gripping stories, the true details of the crash on the outside, those who had lost their lives and those who were still fighting for theirs, leaked only via Twitter whispers not confirmed.
There were sirens outside, on reflection, but that’s not unusual during AFCON matches; it would have been weirder if there hadn’t been any sirens.
I thought they were escorting a team bus off the ground, or bringing in a dignitary. It’s not uncommon for the VIP section to fill up slightly late in a contest, let alone for VVIPs, dusting crumbs from the buffet on their blazer lapels as they ascend their carpeted steps.
CAF President Patrice Motsepe admitted on Tuesday that he only arrived at the Olembe stadium moments before the final whistle, having been caught in traffic jams.
By this point, he, better than us inside the ground, will have been more acutely aware of ambulances transporting people, taking victims to four separate medical facilities in the Cameroonian capital.
Yet for us inside the pitch it was all sirens, just another Nations Cup game, another missed chance from Cameroon, another unlikely block from Alhadhur…the whine of a crowd which, on reflection, seemed slightly more inflated than the capacity of 48,000 cap introduced by CAF to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
As the competition drew to a close, a better understanding of external events began to engulf me.
A security official told me, in French, that there had been jostling, jostling and jostling, but none of these words, when translated into English, quite conveyed the threat of a “rush of “trampling,” as the constable next to him, slapping a bottle of Tangui’s bottled water and wiping the sweat from his brow, described what he saw.
These words paint a different story.
He confirmed to me that there had been a crush at the south entrance, with more people than expected trying to enter the ground. A barrier collapsed and those in front fell under those who followed.
He confirmed there had been deaths and others had been taken to hospital “to save their lives”, but at this stage the numbers were vague. Some said six, others seven, then a statement from the Ministry of Communication confirmed on Tuesday that the number was eight, with seven others still in critical condition.
At the stadium medical centre, around three and a half hours after kick-off, the injured were still being transported on stretchers to waiting ambulances.
From what I could see, some were young, maybe 13 or 14, lounging in and out of consciousness, shoeless, hooked up to ECGs, wrapped in tin foil. They had just come to watch football, to play their own part in this football fiesta that unites the continent.
Red Cross medics collapsed exhausted as the last of the casualties was removed from the medical ward, which was originally intended for the treatment of players injured during the competition.
Some could only stare at their plates of cassava and coconut; some were eating, but their eyes were elsewhere. Alhadhur’s saves and Youssouf M’Changama’s outrageous free kick aren’t the only things that will be mentally replayed over and over in the days to come.
In the hours that followed, details began to emerge about those who lost their lives in the disaster; a pupil from a Catholic school, an 8-year-old boy, a local student and a local magistrate among the victims.
Outside the Olembe stadium afterwards, discarded flags and sandals were strewn on the ground near the gutters. A woman cried as she stood in the doorway, as she cried ‘my child, my child’.
The show goes on of course – it still does. But something has to change this time. There is an 8-month-old baby lying in a hospital in Yaoundé, a “survivor” of the stampede. Who is responsible for it?
Monday’s tragedy was similar to what the England FA and UEFA feared when fans stormed police at Wembley ahead of the Euro 2020 final last year, and why the Metropolitan Police ordered a review independent to establish the causes and circumstances.
Many factors were at play to lead to Monday’s disaster; from the slower entry process to the stadium due to additional vaccination and COVID-19 test result checks, to the many people – mostly without tickets – who had come close to the stadium to sample the atmosphere or to try their luck at entering.
“One of the injured ladies I saw this morning came with her grandson, two others came with young children,” Motsepe told reporters on Tuesday, “and I was told that some people came Be part of the atmosphere, especially those who didn’t have tickets.
“We accept that thousands more people than expected arrived and that people were allowed into the stadium without being properly coordinated and governed.”
READ: Everything you need to know about AFCON
Motsepe also identified a door which had not been opened – the policeman told me that people had not been able to enter through the eastern entrance – while it may appear that the stadium was not completely finished (they were still actively working on on the eve of the tournament) also played a part in people being funneled through narrow passageways to access the site.
It’s a story we’ve seen many times before, from Accra to Ellis Park, from Port Said to Abidjan, from Oppenheimer to Antananarivo, but not at the Nations Cup, and not in front of a world watching like the one -this.
Motsepe’s vow on Tuesday that such scenes will never be replayed must spark action, resolution and change; they must not be just the empty words of a new president seeking to sweeten the worst day of his tenure at the helm of African football.
As I walked back to my apartment in the early hours of Tuesday morning, I thought back to the darkest day in CAN – numerically eclipsing the attack on the Togolese bus in Cabinda province, Angola, in 2010 – and to a tragedy that unfolded just a few hundred yards away from me as I sat in my ignorance watching a football game.
This is a story I never want to witness again, and CAF must make sure of that.