Ivory Coast’s Fragile Peace Threatened By Fear And Food Shortages
The new President vows reconciliation, yet some villages in western Ivory Coast are still ghost towns as residents try to recover from terrible acts of violence.
TOULEPLEU - "I have some good news…" That is what you often say in Ivory Coast to someone who welcomes you to his home. But in the western part of the country, as President Alassane Ouattara advocates "reconciliation," news could be better. United Nations agencies and numerous humanitarian organizations are still active across the region, which was scarred by several spates of killings after the contested 2010 presidential election.
A few kilometers away from the Liberian border, Karim Abdul Diarra, prefect of Toulepleu in the Moyen-Cavally region, stares into space, sitting in front of an empty desk under a straw roof protecting him from the constant rain. He says softly "Only two months ago, Toulepleu was a ghost town. There were only stray dogs in the streets," he recalls. "It used to have 50,000 people." For a long time, the city remained a support base for former President Laurent Gbagbo's forces. People fled when the pro-Outtara forces recaptured the city early March.
The hospital of Toulepleu was entirely devastated, the schools have only gradually begun to open, and the majority of the inhabitants are still gone. Still, Karim Abdul Diarra wants to believe that the crisis is ending. Alassane Ouattara's Republican Forces of Ivory Coast (RFIC) are initiating a pacification process. They are striving to secure the area. But their presence worries the ones they defeated.
Father Cyprien, head of the Catholic mission in Duékué, sums up the situation: "Everyone went from laughter to crying."
There are currently 11,000 displaced people crammed into just seven acres if land. But that is down from just a few weeks ago when there were nearly 30,000. People have started going back home, the ghost towns are slowly repopulating. "The most difficult challenge is reconciliation," Cyprien says.
To go from Danané to Toulepleu, the white SUVs of UNICEF drove several hours across a luxuriant forest, a 50-mile track of red soil saturated with water. It took them as much time to reach Bloléquin, then Guiglo where the road becomes paved again, and finally Duékoué. This itinerary is called "the axis of death;" along the way you can see martyr villages, where burned-down houses mark sometimes unmentionable acts of violence.
From one village to another, the origins of the killers change. In some places, Liberian mercenaries are held responsible for hundreds of deaths. Elsewhere, it's the Guérés, who supported former President Gbagbo, or the Malinkés (pro- Ouattara), or even the RFIC in charge today of forging peace between the two political factions.
Honoré Attiowa is the chief of a small village called Sahibli near Toulepleu. "They tell us that the war is over. But just the other day, one of our camps in the plantations was set on fire." Most of the villagers are fishermen or farmers. They found their boats and equipment destroyed, their plantations pulled out or charred. After several months hiding in the bush, 700 of the 2,339 inhabitants came back. They are looking for a way to earn a living.
Across the region, farmers were unable to harvest their rice and corn fields. The crops of cacao and coffee might be lost too. A major food crisis is looming, and local officials are calling on foreign aid groups to extend their stays.
Leopold Dezon Kahi came back too. He is the Mayor of Bloléquin and fled his city when the Liberian mercenaries arrived. The irony is that he took refuge in Liberia, after a 168-kilometer walk. On March 21, Ouattara's forces entered Bloléquin. A week later, mercenaries appeared from nowhere in the courtyard of the Prefecture where 800 people where under the protection of the RFIC, and started shooting: 79 bodies were buried in a common grave.
The mayor confesses his feeling of "helplessness." He wants to believe in reconstruction: "People regain confidence: today 21,152 of the 55,000 inhabitants who lived in Bloléquin before the crisis have returned. But many are afraid to come back."
Earlier this month, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) opened a refugee camp in Nahily, near Duékoué, which now counts 700 displaced people living there. Frederic de Woelmont, the UNHCR's head of protection, said fear is still everywhere. "We can get out of the crisis, but we can also plunge back into it," he said. "Especially in this region."
Read the original article in French