Welcome To Yopougon, Where Ivory Coast’s Civil War Rages On

No, the battle for Abidjan is not over. In a vast and densely populated area of the Ivory Coast's largest city, Laurent Gbagbo loyalists are still fighting 10 days after his arrest.

Among the many children displaced by Ivory Coast fighting
Among the many children displaced by Ivory Coast fighting
Christophe Châtelot

ABIDJAN - Ten days after the arrest of former President Laurent Gbagbo, the battle for power in the Ivory Coast is not over. While the economic capital of Abidjan is slowly returning to normal, in the neighborhood of Yopougon, hundreds of thousands of Ivorians are still under siege.

Thousands of militiamen, armed by Gbagbo while he was still clinging to power, are resisting attacks by the Republican Forces of Ivory Coast (FRCI), who have fought for Alassane Ouattara, the country's new leader. But the end seems near.

"Our strategy is to gain ground bit by bit, and to suffocate Gbagbo's remaining armed groups by isolating them from each other," says Colonel Soumahoro Gaoussou, the FRCI's chief of operations. "(We) are applying military pressure while trying to negotiate their surrender. We're close to our goal."

About a million people use to live in Yopougon, but during the post-election showdown the neighborhood was gradually cut from the rest of Abidjan when the FRCI entered the city on March 31.

Geography did the rest. This area of Abidjan is like a fist reaching into the Ebrie Laguna, with the main highway leading to Yamoussoukro closing it off in the North. The FRCI control that highway along with most of the country.

With water on one side and the FRCI on the other, says Colonel Gaoussou: "the two or three thousand militiamen and mercenaries are trapped."

A Shell gas station serves as a makeshift headquarters for the Republican Forces fighting in the streets of Yopougon. Dozens of alleged militiamen are held there. When reception allows, Colonel Gaoussou uses his cell phone to follow in real time how his men are applying the strategy he's laid out. But some elements are out of his control. "I took position, I'm moving forward but I have to secure my surroundings," says one of his lieutenants who has just arrived from the Yopougon front. "Do you have AK-47s? I have men but not enough weapons. And what about gas?" he asks the colonel.

The station was looted days ago. The FRCI's arsenal is limited. Just a few armed vehicles and many 4x4s that were once personal cars now carry armed men in mismatched fatigues.

The outcome of the battle shouldn't come as a surprise given the obvious disproportionate advantage in firepower and troops. But for any experienced army, beating an urban guerilla comes at great human costs. And the Republican Forces aren't alone. Civilians also pay a heavy price. That's something President Ouattara is trying to avoid in order not to be accused of allowing his rival's electoral stronghold to be massacred.

It is still impossible to come up with a death toll. The Yopougon hospital rooms are strangely empty. Located right off the highway, its entrance is guarded by the FRCI. "Men don't come here because they're afraid to be mistaken for militiamen. Other wounded or sick hide out in their homes because they're afraid of militiamen, or because they don't have transport. People will pour in once the fighting stops," says professor Soro, sitting on the bed in his office where he's been sleeping for more than three weeks.

On Monday, Doctors Without Borders opened a surgery ward in a private clinic in Attie, a militia-held area. About 20 people have already been operated on for gunshot wounds. All talk about the bodies scattered around Yopougon.

"We civilians suffer a lot," says Patrice Kacou, a Yopougon teacher. "Walking around in the streets is dangerous, almost impossible for foreigners. There are no cars except for the militia, and we're running out of food."

A humanitarian aid worker says militiamen are taking increasing risks to loot stores closer and closer to FRCI-controlled lines. Kacou says: "The wisest thing for fighters to do is to give up arms and go under the radar. Gbagbo is our only president and he'll be back."

Negotiations are ongoing between two militia representatives and Cherif Ousmane, a "zone commander" for the FRCI and a historic leader of the anti-Gbagbo rebellion back in 2002, which split the country in two. "They want guarantees for their safety if they surrender," says Colonel Gaoussou. "And probably a few suitcases full of Euros," adds another officer.

Talks are said to be on the right track, but the situation is complicated – and fluid. There are militiamen banded together in improvised patriotic self-defense neighborhood groups and "highly motivated combatants' who've arrived by boat from other Abidjan neighborhoods after Gbagbo's April 11 arrest.

"They include Liberian mercenaries who have nothing to lose," says commander Zoua. "There's no one left to pay them. And if the militiamen and mercenaries don't surrender, we will attack them like a swarm of bees."

Photo - Sunset Parkerpix

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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