By Theophilus Ikpome with agency reports
Andoudoua Blonde says he will have to live forever with blindness in one eye, headaches and skin rashes caused by a 2006 dumping of toxic waste near his farm in Ivory Coast.
Like thousands of others, he says he still has not received any compensation for his suffering from the European multinational oil trader Trafigura, which offloaded the materials at the port of Abidjan, the west African nation’s capital.
“I cannot bear to tell myself that something so serious could happen without reparations,” said 42-year-old Blonde, whose manioc field was near a site contaminated by the waste and who remembers “its incredibly foul stench”.
“Giving up now would be too hard,” he added.
While Trafigura has paid out some 185 million euros ($198 million) in settlements — much of it to the government, according to 2007 presidential records — victims’ advocates consider it a ridiculously small amount given the tens of thousands of people hurt.
And many victims like Blonde say they have gotten nothing at all.
Other funds ended up in the hands of ruthless scammers who in some cases were aided by the police, according to humanitarian sources.
Now more than 100,000 victims are making one last charge for compensation for their ordeal, but it is unclear how far they will get.
In August 2006 toxic residue on board the Panamanian-registered Probo Koala freighter was sent to Abidjan, where it was later dumped in several sites around the city by a local hauler.
The 528 cubic metres (18,600 cubic feet) of spent caustic soda, oil residues and water subsequently killed 17 people and poisoned tens of thousands, Ivorian judges said.
Trafigura, which declined an interview request firmly denies the materials could have killed or seriously sickened anyone.
In fact, the company “strenuously maintains that it did nothing wrong and its staff acted in an appropriate manner throughout,” according to its website.
Trafigura, a Swiss-Dutch company, reached out-of-court settlements for 33 million euros in 2009 and 152 million euros in 2007 in Britain and the Ivory Coast.
“We warned that these agreements should never have been signed with Trafigura, it was too little,” said Willy Neth, secretary general of the Ivorian League of Human Rights.
The 152 million euros were paid to the government and a quarter of this money was to go to the victims. But Neth charges that the victims did not receive all they were owed.
“The criteria for identifying victims was inappropriate, less than half of the real victims were counted,” asserted Neth, adding Blonde’s case went unidentified.
It is not clear how many people have received money because the government stopped making payments in 2009 after accusations surfaced of identity theft, according to a 2012 report from Greenpeace and Amnesty International.
Also, scammers sensing a potential jackpot turned to fraud to get at the money.
Some victims’ associations falsely pumped up their numbers or engaged in identity theft to get more cash, sometimes with the help of police, according to several humanitarian sources.
“It was at times grotesque, someone with malaria comes and says he was contaminated (by the waste),” said a medical source who requested anonymity.
“Some fell through the cracks.”
Four people who claimed to represent a group of victims were convicted in January of taking seven million euros of the 33-million-euro payment from Trafigura. The thieves got 20 years in prison, but have yet to be locked up.
“Thousands of real victims may never receive compensation,” said Drissa Traore, vice president of the International Federation of Human Rights.
A group of more than 100,000 Ivorian victims are making one last effort in the form of a lawsuit against Trafigura in a Dutch court, demanding compensation and a clean-up.
The suit demands 2,500 euros each — a total of nearly 280 million euros — for 110,937 victims.
The group said it has made an effort to rule out fakers by checking their medical records.
Mariam Bamba, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said treating her headaches, nosebleeds and vision problems costs her 30 euros per month, about a third of her monthly pay.
“This proceeding is our last hope,” she said.