On 30 March people who had sought refuge at a local government building in the western Ivoirian town of Bloléquin were cooking, children playing. The following morning the bloodied bodies of at least 85 men, women and children were piled up in a hallway.
Western Côte d’Ivoire - a cocoa and coffee-growing region on which the country is dependent for a large slice of its export revenues - is inhabited by a mix of ethnic groups, including from neighbouring countries. Ethnic-based land disputes have long plagued the region.
Armed conflict in March, when pro-Alassane Ouattara forces swept south in a drive to oust Laurent Gbagbo, triggered looting and violence in what many here are calling “a settling of scores”.
As in 2002, when rebels took over northern Côte d’Ivoire, in recent months the zone just south of their territory saw fighting that displaced tens of thousands of people. Last week displaced people in the town of Danané told IRIN: “This is our second war"; many had fled their homes for a year or two after the 2002 fighting.
Humanitarian workers say this complex context is one of the greatest challenges in assisting displaced communities and people seeking to return to their home villages.
Bloléquin, which lies just to the south of territory controlled by anti-Gbagbo rebels for nine years, is one of several sites that saw massacres in March. The overall number of victims is still unknown.
Marc*, 18, and some of his family are among the survivors. His father came to Bloléquin from Burkina Faso 20 years ago. The family worked on a cocoa plantation. Seated near Marc were other survivors - all with bandages covering gunshot wounds, including his father and a 10-year-old child who was shot in the face; a bandage covered part of the boy’s mouth but one could see from his eyes he was smiling.
“Begging for mercy”
“We were sleeping - it was about 4am,” Marc told IRIN. “There was fighting when the Forces Nouvelles [FN, pro-Ouattara soldiers] came to the town, then the FN withdrew and pro-Gbagbo groups took over. They came to the sub-prefecture building [where we had sought refuge from our nearby village weeks earlier]. They were saying they’d heard some foreigners were there and they ordered us all out.
“Everyone was afraid and crammed into a hallway. A group of men behind us were forcing us forward towards an exit but people stopped; they were afraid because in front too there were armed men. I and some others slipped into rooms off the hallway to hide. Some of my family members were lying in the hallway and bodies just kept falling on them.
“All I heard was gunfire, screaming and crying. People were begging for mercy. Those who were shooting said nothing - they just fired and fired. Those attacking us were Gbagbo’s militia and Liberians Gbagbo deployed in the country.
“Once the armed groups left, the FN came to the sub-prefecture building and they hollered: ‘Are there any survivors?’ That’s when we got up and they told us to start walking; they would pick us up in a vehicle. We started to walk. We walked to Toulepleu [65km away]. Our feet, our entire bodies hurt. Then the FN came, put us in a vehicle and took us here to Danané and helped us get medical care.
“A number of people survived. Some have returned to Burkina, others to Mali. We are just here, waiting. We’ve got nothing. Everything we ever had we left behind. But we hear that there are Guéré [an ethnic group who survivors say are allied to the attackers] around Bloléquin, in the bush, armed. They are still there.”
*not his real name
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