Residents of Senegal’s Casamance region are shaken by some of the heaviest fighting in years between the army and alleged separatist troops, staying away from their plantations and closing shops before nightfall, residents and aid workers say.
On 25 August automatic weapon and rocket-propelled grenade fire was heard in the main city Ziguinchor from 9pm for about three hours, residents told IRIN. “It sounded as if it was just behind the walls of our home,” said a local NGO worker who requested anonymity “because the situation is delicate”.
“We have not seen fighting like this here since 2002," he said.
The clashes, between Senegalese soldiers and fighters thought to be with the Movement for the Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC), came four days after similar fighting took place some 10km south of Ziguinchor. Residents and local authorities told IRIN the earlier fighting forced scores of people to flee their homes; as of 26 August aid workers and authorities said it was not yet clear how many people had been displaced.
Casamance is the site of one of Africa’s longest-running conflicts, sparked when MFDC separatists launched a rebellion in 1982. The region – where agriculture is the main source of local income – has been gripped by sporadic violence as a definitive settlement has yet to be achieved. In recent months a spike in armed attacks on civilians prompted a government dusk-to-dawn curfew on major roads. Landmines have killed and injured hundreds of people since 1990.
Despite the dangers families have been gradually returning to their home villages where fighting drove them out some 20 years ago, desperate to return to their land.
“We are quite preoccupied about the current situation,” said Christina de Bruin, UN area security coordinator and head of the UN Children’s Fund sub-office in Ziguinchor. “Last night’s [25 August] incidents in the area of Diabir are quite alarming. This is an area just behind the Ziguinchor airport and only about 2km to 3km from the centre of town.”
She said the UN has temporarily reduced some of its movements in the south of Ziguinchor “until we have a better reading of the situation”.
Residents told IRIN fighters calling themselves MFDC warned people not to go to their fields around Ziguinchor.
“The fighters were in groups of five,” resident Ibrahima Goudiaby told IRIN. “They came and blocked all the exits from the neighbourhood, stealing [bicycles, mobile phones and identity papers] from residents and from people returning late from the fields.”
First-ever gunfire for young ears
Children not yet born in 2002, the last time such heavy fighting took place around Casamance's main city Ziguinchor, are hearing automatic weapon fire for the first time, residents told IRIN.
“On [the night of 25 August] amid all the shooting my six-year-old daughter asked me, ‘Daddy, what is that? Why are they doing that?’” said one resident. “These children had never heard this before. My friends’ children are asking too. What can we tell them?"
He added: “They told us not to go to our plantations because they will suspect us of being army informants. This jeopardizes our crops because we were just in the middle of turning the land and transplanting.”
The NGO worker said: “People are afraid. In some neighbourhoods shopkeepers are closing down early for fear of armed looting.” Many people in the region are observing the Muslim month of Ramadan when people fast from dawn to dusk.
Buildings of the University of Ziguinchor were hit by bullets and an explosive from a rocket-propelled grenade, according to university personnel and students.
Observers say the latest events underscore the need for a sound peace agreement that would bring permanent stability to the region. “These incidents point to the importance of negotiations to reach a definitive peace in Casamance,” the UN’s de Bruin said.