YAOUNDE, Cameroon — When I left my apartment in Mfandena on Monday morning to cover another day of Africa Cup of Nations action, I knew the heat would be hard to deal with. I knew there would be vibrancy. And I knew there would be ever-present drama.
But I had no idea of the things I would see and the terrified voices I would hear by the time I returned home over 13 hours later, following the most harrowing day in the tournament’s history that left at least eight people dead.
The match between Cameroon and Comoros had continued in front of us in the press box while ambulances carried dozens of people to hospital, all of us inside unaware and insulated, focused on the pitch. The game, which the hosts won, was never called off or even paused despite the ongoing tragedy outside.
The main story when the day began, and indeed one of the most compelling stories in AFCON history, was the confusion and contradiction surrounding the status of the Comoros goalkeepers.
Would the tiny islanders — ranked 132nd in the world, playing in their first Nations Cup — really take on hosts Cameroon without a recognised stopper? If an outfield player had to start in goal, who would it be? How will he manage?
It’s a testament to the horrifying scenes that unfolded as the night wore on that the spectacle on the field — Cameroon’s toil, Chaker Alhadhur’s heroics in goal, Nadjim Abdou’s controversial early red card — all feel like a footnote to the darkest day in Nations Cup history.
During the tail end of the match, rife with engrossing storylines, the true details of the crush outside, those who had lost their lives, and those who were still fighting for theirs, only dripped through via unconfirmed Twitter murmurings.
There were sirens outside, on reflection, but that’s nothing unusual during AFCON matches; it would have been stranger if there hadn’t been sirens.
I thought they were escorting a team bus away from the ground, or ushering some dignitary in. It’s not unusual for the VIP section to fill up slightly belatedly into a contest, even less so for the VVIPs, brushing the buffet crumbs off their blazer lapels as they’re ushered up their carpeted steps.
CAF president Patrice Motsepe acknowledged Tuesday that he had only arrived at the Stade d’Olembe moments before the final whistle, having been caught up in traffic.
By this point, he, better than us inside the ground, will have been more acutely aware of the ambulances transporting people away, taking victims to four separate medical facilities in the Cameroonian capital.
Yet for us inside the ground, it was just sirens, just another Nations Cup match, another Cameroon chance missed, another unlikely block by Alhadhur … the groan of a crowd that did, upon reflection, seem slightly more bloated than the 48,000 capacity cap introduced by CAF to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
As the contest drew to a close, a greater understanding of the events outside began to engulf me.
A security official told me, in French, that there had been pushing, shoving and jostling, but none of these words when translated to English quite convey the menace of a “stampede,” of “trampling,” which is how the gendarme next to him, slugging a bottle of Tangui bottled water and wiping sweat from his forehead, described what he had seen.
Those words paint a different story.
He confirmed to me that there had been a crush at the south entrance, with more people than anticipated trying to get into the ground. A barrier collapsed and those at the front fell beneath those who followed.
He confirmed there had been deaths, and that others had been taken to hospital “in order to save their lives,” but at that stage the numbers were vague. Some said six, some said seven, then a statement from the Ministry of Communication confirmed on Tuesday that the number stood at eight, with seven more still in critical condition.
In the stadium’s medical centre, some three and a half hours after kickoff, the injured were still being wheeled on stretchers to waiting ambulances.
Some were young from what I could see, maybe 13 or 14 years old, lolling in and out of conscious, shoeless, hooked up to ECGs, wrapped in silver foil. They had just come to watch football, to play their own part in this fiesta of football that unites the continent.
The Red Cross medics slumped exhausted when the last of the casualties were removed from the medical room, which had originally been intended for the treatment of players injured during the course of the contest.
Some could only stare at their plates of manioc and coconut; some ate, 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 coming days.
In the following hours, details began to emerge of those who lost their lives in the disaster; a pupil at a Catholic school, an 8-year-old boy, a local college student, and a local magistrate among the victims.
Outside the Stade d’Olembe afterward, discarded flags and sandals were strewn on the ground near the gutters. A woman was wailing while standing at the gate, weeping as she cried out for “my child, my child.”
The show goes on of course — it always does. But something must change this time. There is an 8-month old baby lying in a Yaounde hospital, a “survivor” of the stampede. Who takes the blame for that?
Monday’s tragedy was similar to what the England FA and UEFA feared when fans swarmed police at Wembley ahead of the Euro 2020 final last year, and why the Metropolitan police commissioned an independent review to establish the causes and circumstances.
Many factors were at play to lead up to Monday’s disaster; from the slower stadium entry process due to additional vaccination and COVID-19 test result checks, to the many people — mostly without tickets — who had come to the vicinity of the stadium to sample the atmosphere or to try their chances at gaining entry.
“One of the injured ladies who I saw this morning came with her small son, two others came with young children,” Motsepe told journalists on Tuesday, “and I’m told that some people came to be part of the atmosphere, including those who didn’t have tickets.
“We accept that thousands more than what was expected arrived, and that people were allowed into stadium without being properly coordinated and governed.”
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Motsepe also identified a gate that hadn’t been opened — the policeman told me that people hadn’t been able to enter via the east entrance — while it may emerge that the stadium not being completely finished (they were still actively working on it on the eve of the tournament) also played a part in people being funnelled through narrow passageways to gain access to the venue.
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 before a watching world like this.
Motsepe’s vow on Tuesday, that such scenes will never be replayed again, must birth action, resolution and modification; they must not just be the hollow words of a new president looking to smooth over the worst day of his tenure at the helm of African football.
As I returned to my apartment in the early hours of Tuesday morning, I reflected on the AFCON’s darkest day — numerically eclipsing the attack on Togo’s bus in Cabinda Province, Angola, in 2010 — and a tragedy that unravelled only a few hundred metres away from me, as I sat, in my ignorance, watching a match of football.
It’s a story I never want to witness again, and CAF must make sure of that.