Like most of his fellow refugees in Grand Gedeh county in the far east of Liberia, “Da Tatouwa” is from the Guéré ethnic group, and fear of an "anti-Guéré genocide" made him flee his home town of Bloléquin in the far west of Côte d'Ivoire in March 2011, as forces loyal to incoming President Alassane Ouattara overran the region. "What we are still waiting for is for Ouattara to offer his own mea culpa [admission that it is his fault], to account for what his allies did to us… Then we might think about going back."
Da Tatouwa, the name he chooses to go by, is a senior figure in the Ivorian refugee community in Zwedru, the capital of Grand Gedeh, which enjoys strong ties with the Krahn of eastern Liberia. "I got away, but my uncle and brother were killed by the enemy as they took too long crossing the river," he said.
He makes no secret of his allegiance to ousted Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo or his membership of the Front Populaire Ivoirien (FPI) - Ivorian Popular Front - but insists that "it is a question of ideology, not of personalities".
Scars and memories
When a UN delegation visited the refugee camp established on land previously owned by the Prime Timber Production (PTP) company near Zwedru in May 2012, the US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, told refugees, "We would like to understand better from you what conditions have to be present so you would feel comfortable to return home." Thousands of refugees have crossed back into Côte d'Ivoire, but many remaining in the camps and host communities around Zwedru still talk bitterly of what they lived through and why they cannot go home.
Leontine, from Bloléquin, recalled watching rebels cut her husband's throat in front of her, and then staying for days by his corpse. She was raped and robbed before making her way into Liberia. After receiving medical treatment in Monrovia, the capital, Leontine settled in Zwedru, living with her in-laws and two of her four children.
Annik Naho lives in the Solo refugee camp, 20km outside Zwedru. Her husband died of his wounds after a vicious attack when he crossed into Côte d'Ivoire to look for his son. Naho talked bitterly of living in the camp, the boredom and frustration, the difficulty of feeding and clothing children "who are still crying for their father”.
Asked if she planned to resettle in Côte d'Ivoire, Naho snapped back angrily, "There is no way I could go back - that is where they tried to cut my husband to pieces. There is nothing for me there. Find me another country which is safe and where my children can be looked after, but I am not going home."
Waiting on Ouattara
The extreme violence perpetrated in western Côte d'Ivoire, including summary executions, rapes and brutal abductions, has been documented at length in reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, among others.
|There is no way I could go back - that is where they tried to cut my husband to pieces|
While pro-Gbagbo militias, Liberian mercenaries and regular troops have been accused of serious violations, so too have forces nominally aligned with Ouattara - notably the Dozos, traditional hunter-warriors from the north, the Forces Républicains de Côte d'Ivoire (FRCI) - Republican Forces of Côte d'Ivoire - and assorted militias that had fought under the umbrella of the Forces Nouvelles since 2002.
Human rights activists have persistently called on Côte d'Ivoire President Ouattara to shed light on the atrocities committed by these combatants and to pursue the perpetrators, but have not been impressed by the response.
In April, Ouattara toured several former flashpoints in the west, including Bloléquin, Duékoué and Toulépleu. He called on refugees to return and pleaded for harmony and honesty, arguing that "reconciliation comes through pardon and repentance", and that "those who seek forgiveness will see things go easier for them".
Da Tatouwa is highly sceptical. "You have to question the sincerity of a man who talks of reconciliation while still carrying out witch-hunts inside Côte d'Ivoire, and while warlords are still calling the shots in the west."
The Truth, Reconciliation and Dialogue Commission, comprising religious leaders, regional representatives and celebrities, has made little progress since it was set up by the Ivorian government in September 2011, and lacks effective leadership and direction, say Ivoirian rights groups.
The legacy of land disputes
For hardcore Gbagbo and FPI supporters, grievances focus more on the legacy of conflict in the west than on the national situation. Pierre Perico Nemonglo, a past associate of pro-Gbagbo youth leader Charles Blé Goudé, reels off a standard, pro-FPI narrative on the breakdown in Côte d'Ivoire, dismissing Ouattara as "the candidate of France - the France of Sarkozy", and anticipates a new rash of protests when Gbagbo’s trial begins in the International Criminal Court in The Hague on 13 August.
"But it's not now about Gbagbo and Ouattara - the real problems are in the west," Nemonglo said. He warned that longstanding, complex land disputes - “les problèmes fonciers” (problems of land ownership) - which have pitted the Guéré against rival communities for years, could derail any prospects of genuine peace if not properly handled. "Ouattara is the president. It is now up to him to show he has the courage to deal with all this."
Death in the forest
The killing of seven UN peacekeepers and a dozen civilians near Tai in southwestern Côte d'Ivoire on 8 June has not eased the refugees' concerns. Rumours proliferate as to who was responsible - pro-Gbagbo militias, Liberian mercenaries, disaffected fighters who had supported Ouattara’s deceased occasional ally, Ibrahim Coulibaly, or even bandits. "We heard about the attack, but we have no real understanding of what went on there," said Samuel, a stone mason from Toulépleu.
Liberian and Ivorian authorities responded quickly to the Tai incident. Liberia announced Operation Restore Hope, closed the frontier, dispatched troops to Zwedru and other border regions, issued a hastily compiled list of “wanted” individuals suspected of being involved in mercenary activity, and after the briefest of court hearings, extradited 41 Ivorian nationals who had spent months in detention. Liberia also promised much stronger cross-border cooperation with Côte d'Ivoire. Official enquiries into the Tai incident continue.
Mindful of the military
Senior aid officials acknowledge that Operation Restore Hope, the first large-scale security operation of its kind since the departure of former President Charles Taylor in 2003, has meant adapting to new, if temporary realities, having to consult with bodies like the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Defence and the senior command of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL).
Their hope is that the security goals will be rapidly obtained, the borders will soon reopen and the steady repatriation of refugees will resume. Until recently, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and its local counterpart, the Liberia Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission (LRRRC) had presided over a steady repatriation of Ivorian refugees.
Biometric studies are still underway, but refugee numbers are now reportedly around 70,000, down from a peak of over 200,000. Liberians, who lose their refugee status at the end of July, have been steadily returning.
Chantal, a hairdresser from Abidjan, the commercial capital of Côte d'Ivoire, who lives in the PTP camp in Liberia, said the deployment of troops had been intimidating. "When the soldiers first came, they were very violent. You don't want to see guns and uniforms when you've been through what we have."
She was less keen to talk politics than some of her friends. While they showed communiqués full of refugee concerns, or proposed solutions to land disputes in Côte d'Ivoire, she spoke simply of her desire to get to "some other country - not Liberia, not Côte d'Ivoire - somewhere better."