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Endgames, uncertainty and reprisals

[Cote d'Ivoire] President Laurent Gbagbo. [Date picture taken: February 2006]
President Laurent Gbagbo is expected to attend the talks scheduled for Sunday (IRIN)

As pro-Alassane Ouattara forces moved into Abidjan on 31 March and rumours flew about the fall of Laurent Gbagbo, residents who have lived through unprecedented violence in recent weeks fear militants on both sides will become more radical than ever in their attacks.

Ouattara, Côte d’Ivoire's internationally recognized president, said rival Gbagbo would not be physically harmed if he agreed to leave. Civilians throughout Abidjan do not have such assurances.

“We are already seeing a lot of car thefts and looting,” a resident of the commercial capital’s Abobo District told IRIN. He said post-battle reprisals could be vicious, particularly in the Yopougon District – large sections of which are inhabited by pro-Gbagbo youth. “They burned our people alive there and there is a natural desire for vengeance. If I myself saw Blé Goudé [longtime pro-Gbagbo militant and youth leader commonly accused of inciting violence] I would want to kill him for the things he’s done.”

Burning people alive – including in front of one’s family members – has become widespread in Abidjan, residents say.

“With the arrival of the pro-Ouattara forces in Abidjan, I had to move my family to a safer place,” Ruffin Guéï, 37-year-old security guard, told IRIN on 31 March. He said pro-Ouattara men have come and threatened him at his home twice, accusing him of hiding arms.

“Reprisal attacks are already happening,” 42-year-old restaurant worker in the Adjamé District Soumaïla Tioté told IRIN. “Here in Adjamé we live with pro-Gbagbo militants. Every morning we see bodies riddled with bullets.”

Gbagbo militants have long been ready to kill anyone dubbed pro-Ouattara, a Yopougon resident told IRIN. “The easiest way to make trouble for someone in a [pro-Gbagbo] neighbourhood is to denounce the person as a rebel. That will draw a crowd straightaway and the person can easily be set on fire.”

But people have also been caught out by the pace of events and the shifts in control. Just days ago, the pro-Gbagbo Jeunes Patriotes were calling for mass mobilization and a fight to defend Abidjan, while soldiers loyal to Gbagbo were telling youth activists it would soon be their turn to fight. Reports from Koumassi and Yopougon point to pro-Outtara armed groups now having the run of both areas, while Ouattara supporters talk dismissively of the Jeunes Patriotes being more about rhetoric and empty threats than serious fighting.

An Alassane Ouattara supporter in Abidjan. November 2010

Les habitants d’Abidjan disent craindre les représailles des parties en conflit (photo d’archives)
Monica Mark/IRIN
An Alassane Ouattara supporter in Abidjan. November 2010
Thursday, December 2, 2010
Dernier round, incertitudes et représailles
An Alassane Ouattara supporter in Abidjan. November 2010

Photo: Monica Mark/IRIN
Abidjan residents said they fear revenge attacks from the warring sides (file photo)

The behaviour of pro-Ouattara militants has caused concern, particularly with arms reportedly being given out to so many. A Koumassi resident said the police station had been destroyed by a mob and weapons and ammunition seized. A Yopougon resident ruefully recalled the events of 2002 when the rebel "Forces Nouvelles" (FN) made their first incursions. “People have very bad memories of 2002 and the stories of violence from people fleeing the rebel-held areas.”

“It will be difficult to rein in the two camps,” Russel Kouadio, a 33-year-old teacher in Yopougon, told IRIN.

West African immigrants have been targeted by pro-Gbagbo groups who take them to be Ouattara backers. Human Rights Watch says armed uniformed men shot nine West African immigrants at a police station on 29 March, killing six of them.

One Burkinabé man among the three survivors told HRW the assailants asked “’Are you brothers of the rebellion?’”

In an apparent reprisal a week earlier, according to HRW, 37 West African immigrants were murdered by pro-Gbagbo armed men after rival forces passed through their village in the west.

HRW and other groups are calling on all sides to spare civilians and say UN peacekeepers must do all they can to protect those at risk. “Now more than ever the UN has to step up to the plate and protect civilians,” HRW senior Africa researcher Corinne Dufka told IRIN.

The UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) is doing what it can “to minimise civilian victims” in the ongoing fighting, spokesperson Hamadoun Touré told IRIN. ONUCI currently has around 10,000 troops in Côte d’Ivoire.

“The challenge is we need to be everywhere at once, which of course is impossible. We are overstretched and there are countless violent attacks.”

He said complicating the situation are thugs who are pillaging throughout Abidjan. “They are going house to house and attacking people.”

The swiftness and efficiency with which the pro-Ouattara forces unleashed their multi-pronged offensive may have surprised many Ivoirians, particularly the rapid capture of the political capital, Yamoussoukro, but a Ouattara supporter said the FN were highly organized while they were fighting an army which contained a 'silent majority' of Ouattara supporters and had no appetite for battle. Pro-Gbagbo youth activists have been bitterly critical of the military for losing the country.

But many understand soldiers’ reluctance to fight and die for Gbagbo. “The best thing Gbagbo can do now is step down peacefully and warn against armed resistance," Laurent in Yopougon told IRIN. “People are really tired of the sacrifices they have had to make for him.” 

Amid intense speculation about Gbagbo’s whereabouts and future intentions, Ouattara announced a curfew from 9 pm to 6 am.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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