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Well 13 in Shell's Yorla field had been leaking for five days when I got there. Members of the nearby Ogoni village of Kpean had assembled around a five-foot-high (1.5 meters) wellhead that stood in the midst of high grass. Puffs of smoke drifted from the iron structure. Oil dripped from its sides into a spreading lake.

"We're expecting Shell, but no one has come yet," a villager said. "Soon the oil will leak into the creek over there and spoil our drinking water."

Shell and Ogoniland share a tragic history. Nigeria's first mass protest against the oil industry emerged in these tribal lands southeast of Port Harcourt. In 1990, the charismatic writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, outraged by oil spills in Ogoniland, founded the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People. The organization demanded control of the oil on Ogoni lands and an end to environmental damage. A quarter of a million Ogoni, nearly half the population, rallied in early 1993 to support the cause. Later that year, Shell, citing security concerns, halted production from its 96 wells in Ogoniland—though oil from wells outside the area continued to flow in pipelines through Ogoni territory.

Alarmed by Saro-Wiwa's popular support, Nigeria's military government brought charges of murder against him and fellow activists. The government accused them of instigating the mob killings of four Ogoni leaders from a rival faction. At a tribunal widely regarded as a sham, and with the alleged complicity of Shell, Saro-Wiwa and eight others were found guilty and hanged in 1995. Though the world community reacted with outrage, and Saro-Wiwa's son initiated a lawsuit against Shell for human rights abuses (which is ongoing), the situation has not improved. In fact, Isaac Osuoka told me, "things have gotten worse since Ken was murdered."

To this day, safety concerns and lengthy, often hostile negotiations with community leaders over access fees and compensation payments hamper Shell's response to spills. When I heard that the leak at Well 13 had become a fire, I returned to Kpean. Black smoke was flooding the sky above the palm trees. This time I couldn't get close to the well—a group of angry Ogoni youths blocked my vehicle.

"Get out, white man! You work for Shell!" one yelled.

"You want to see it? Give us 100,000 naira," another shouted. He was demanding $800.

A few days later, I asked Patrick Naagbanton, an Ogoni journalist who had marched with Saro-Wiwa, to convince the village chief to let us in. Naagbanton led the way, shoving through the crowd toward the well. A fireball was erupting from the ground. The flames roared. Within the inferno, the iron Christmas tree was melting like an effigy thrown on a funeral pyre. Letam Nwinek, one of the villagers, pulled us away from the heat. "We're afraid that if the fire enters the pipeline, the whole community could go up," he said. "Shell keeps promising to come, but they say they need more foam and special equipment because the fire has grown so large."

Suddenly, the crowd began scattering. A man dressed for the city in a pink shirt and black beret came up to us.

"You'd better leave. Now!"

Our evictor, Marvin Yobana, was president of the Ogoni Youth Council. As he spoke, five men surrounded us in a threatening stance.

"Yobana is what passes as an Ogoni leader today," Naagbanton said as we retreated. "He's a thug. I believe he's negotiating with Shell to gain a lucrative clean-up contract and doesn't want journalists around." Taking a last look at the fire, Naagbanton said with disgust, "He's just part of the predatory, parasitic struggle to get oil money."

Well 13 would burn for two more months before a Shell team arrived to extinguish it.

"Is anyone listening?" Ken Saro-Wiwa had asked in his final newspaper column. "The delta people must be allowed to join in the lucrative sale of crude oil," he wrote. "Only in this way can the cataclysm that is building up in the delta be avoided."

The cataclysm is upon the delta. As I write this, 70 militants have just attacked a Shell convoy in the Cawthorne Channel, taking 25 oil workers hostage. Rebels have killed nine Nigerian soldiers in a firefight near Brass Island, the site of a large, vulnerable export terminal. Meanwhile, east of Port Harcourt, gunmen have raided an ExxonMobil residential compound and abducted four Scottish oil workers, demanding ten million dollars each for their release.

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