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Peace more elusive than ever on third anniversary of civil war

[Cote d'Ivoire] A young child and mother return from their small growing plot with the days harvest. The two live in an IDP camp for those driven from their home by the country's civil war. Small gardens supplement their food handouts in an attempt to cop
Will conservation agriculture help ensure a better harvest for the future? (IRIN)

It's been three years since rebels invaded the north of Cote d'Ivoire in a bid to topple the regime, and it's been three years since security guard Joel Toure last saw his parents.

"I can't afford to travel north, they can't afford to travel south. So as long as we're all safe and in good health, we keep in touch by telephone," he said, sitting under the shade of a tree in the main city Abidjan.

Joel's predicament is typical of many Ivorians: he lives far apart from his family in the war-divided nation, his income has crumbled, his dreams have faded, and he has resigned himself to a situation that he feels powerless to change.

Cote d'Ivoire has been split into a government-controlled south and a rebel-held north since the New Forces rebel movement unsuccessfully tried to topple President Laurent Gbagbo on 19 September 2002.

Three years and several peace deals on, Cote d'Ivoire remains divided with the de facto partition of the country the greatest obstacle to peace.

Even South African President Thabo Mbeki, the latest mediator to try to end the conflict, has so far failed to remove all the obstacles standing in the way of planned 30 October elections which analysts consider crucial to the return of stability.

The elections were to be a final hurdle in a peace process that has run awry in the last weeks, notably when rebels and pro-government militia failed to hand in weapons, as required. And with the electoral register still to be updated, sticking to the 30 October date is simply “not possible”, UN chief Kofi Annan said early this month.

In one of the latest blows to peace, the rebels have accused Mbeki of pro-government bias and are refusing to continue to work with him, while the South Africans blame the rebels and opposition parties for the deadlock in the tortuous and shaky peace process.

Meanwhile, some 10,000 UN and French troops patrol the buffer zone between loyalist forces and the rebels. And as power-hungry politicians on both sides of the dividing line continue bickering over leadership of the former economic powerhouse of West Africa, ordinary Ivorians have resigned themselves to a routine of 'making-do'.

Although there hasn't been much actual fighting between the warring factions, many people have been displaced, thousands have lost their lives, and many more have lost their jobs. And most Ivorians see no end in sight.

"When I listen to the authorities of this country, I know that they are not ready to put their differences aside and get along," sighed Joel Toure.

"I am very pessimistic."

[Cote d'Ivoire] "Sergeant Doctor" real name, Dramane Soro, is the commander of the corridor south out of Bouake. His men control the last checkpoint at Djebonoua, 16 km south of Bouake.

Sergeant Doctor, surrounded by his men at Djebonoua
[Cote d'Ivoire] "Sergeant Doctor" real name, Dramane Soro, is the commander of the corridor south out of Bouake. His men control the last checkpoint at Djebonoua, 16 km south of Bouake...
Friday, April 22, 2005
'Sergeant Doctor' gives up his big guns...
[Cote d'Ivoire] "Sergeant Doctor" real name, Dramane Soro, is the commander of the corridor south out of Bouake. His men control the last checkpoint at Djebonoua, 16 km south of Bouake...
Rebel commander

Economic crisis

The impact of the war on the commercial capital of Abidjan is not immediately visible, but a closer look unveils abandoned office buildings, empty hotel lobbies and closed movie theatres and restaurants.

While business in the once-bustling central district of Plateau winds down, the populous outskirts of the city have seen a massive influx of refugees from the rebel-held north. According to rough estimates by municipal authorities, Abidjan has swollen with perhaps as much as a million people to a total population of 5 million - almost a third of the entire 17-million population.

"I had to take ten family members under my wing, including my mother, who fled the rebel invasion to stay with me," said 28-year-old Jacob Guede, a self-employed computer consultant. "They do nothing, they just sit at my house all day, they eat, they sleep. I am always worrying about money because they all depend on me."

As the economic crisis deepens, Ivorians in the countryside too are struggling to get by.

Shortly after the failed putsch, prices for the country's prized cocoa crop shot to a record high, but prices fell back to their usual low when the cocoa industry realised that the beans would come out of the bush regardless of the nation's ubiquitous security roadblocks.

"My sister lost her job at the main port of Abidjan and had to sell her house and her car," said Jean-Marie Kouassi, a farmer-turned-street hawker. "She went back to the village and is trying to make a living by growing cashew nuts. She doesn't know much about farming and she was used to the lifestyle in the city. There are many people like her, suffering in our villages."

But the worst effect of the war, many Ivorians say, is that the mutual solidarity between people of different ethnic origins for which Cote d'Ivoire was celebrated in its heyday has all but disappeared.

Southerners versus northerners

Stressing the social divide caused by geographical partition, the well-known writer Venance Konan quipped that there are no longer 60 different ethnic groups living on Ivorian soil, but only two: 'northerners' and 'southerners'.

"We were all Ivorians before, we were like brothers," said Lucien Tanoh, a handyman from the north-eastern government-held town of Bondoukou. "We try to keep this same spirit but it’s difficult. Before the war, you didn't hesitate if a Bete (President Gbagbo’s ethnic group) from your hometown asked for help. But today, you say: go ask your own brothers, it's not my problem."

Some Ivorians say that politics have pervaded everyday life to such a degree that everybody is immediately classified according to his religion, surname or ethnic group.

Muslims for example, they say, are automatically seen as opposition supporters or worse, rebel sympathisers. Christians are generally believed to be sympathetic to Gbagbo’s ruling Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party, and members of one of the country's largest ethnic groups, the Baoule, are considered favourable to former president Henri Konan Bedie.

"I am a Bete but nobody will believe I won't vote for Gbagbo," said an Ivorian who declined to give his name. "I have stopped trying to defend myself when people go: oh, you Bete people are ruining this country. I just avoid talking politics these days."

Indeed, even the national football team, nicknamed the Elephants, is no longer capable of reuniting the Ivorians as a people, security guard Joel Toure said.

"It's like, when [star player] Didier Drogba scores a goal, lots of northern football supporters don't even cheer, saying he’s a southerner, so why should they care," he said.

But possibly the group hardest hit by the crisis is the immigrant community, people generally from northern neighbours Mali and Burkina Faso, who make up a large chunk of the total 16 million population. With unemployment soaring, many government supporters accuse them of 'stealing' jobs from Ivorian-born citizens.

In fact, the only people widely believed to have profited from the war, politicians aside, are the nation's security forces. Many ordinary Ivorians believe the brand-new Mercedes cars owned by soldiers and police officers were paid for by racketeering and from the war bonus all security forces have received since the war started three years ago.

"The racketeering by the security forces has always been bad, but it’s much worse now than before the war," said Burkinabe cook Marcel Kedega, who was fired by his employer several months into the conflict because he was not Ivorian.

"When you get stopped at a roadblock in a woro-woro (collective taxi), you always have to get out and pay a bribe. They look at the name on your identity card and say: get out or pay."

"We are all very tired of this," said Joel Toure. "But there is nothing we can do. It's the politicians who started all this, so they are the only ones capable of ending this war."

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:

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