Things had not been easy for Seydou Kabore and his compatriots in recent years in Abidjan, but they became even tougher after Burkina Faso was accused of supporting an armed uprising that began in Cote d’Ivoire on 19 September.
So when he heard that his country’s government had started repatriating some of its nationals, he did not hesitate. “As soon as I heard the buses were in town to take us back home, I just gave my keys to one of my colleagues and rushed to the Embassy,” Kabore told IRIN in the Burkina Faso capital, Ouagadougou.
The 35-year-old was visibly exhausted from his three-day journey from Abidjan to Ouagadougou via Ghana. He was hopeful even if a bit bitter. ''We worked there [in Cote d’Ivoire] for years,” he said. “Now that they do not need us we are coming back home to use our strength to build our country.''
Seydou had worked as a taxi driver in Abidjan, but after the accusations against Burkina Faso were carried on state media, some Ivorians started attacking West African migrants, especially those from Sahelian countries - Mali and Burkina Faso - and Liberia.
Forced to sleep on the ruins of razed homes
The situation became more difficult when tens of thousands of people, immigrants as well as Ivorians, lost their homes as shanty dwellings in Abidjan were destroyed on the order of the Ivorian authorities. Cote d’Ivoire’s government described the move as a security measure aimed at depriving the rebels of potential hiding places. Some people were forced to sleep in the open air on the ruins of their destroyed homes. The luckier ones found refuge with friends.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported on 19 November that, according to NGOs working in Abidjan, an estimated 40,000 people were displaced from 13 shantytowns razed by the military or the gendarmerie. Only a small minority were taken in by social centres established by the authorities.
In October, nationals of some West African countries began to seek refuge in their embassies, prompting governments to organise convoys to take them home.
Burkina Faso, for example, announced in November that it aimed to repatriate 7,000 of its nationals at a cost of 450 million FCFA (about US $690,000), contributed by the Burkina Faso government, NGOs, donors and the UN. As at 22 November, the embassy in Abidjan had organised the return home of 1,850 Burkinabe, according to Zacharie Masse of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), who has been collecting data on the repatriations from embassies in Abidjan.
Seydou was part of a first batch of 600 Burkinabe who were repatriated. He arrived in the capital, Ouagadougou, on 14 November with next to nothing. His home had been demolished and burnt, along with his belongings, while he was at work. ''I had nothing left,” he said. “Fortunately the church and Caritas [a Catholic NGO] gave me clothes and fed me, along with the Burkina embassy.”
By the end of the third week of November, Niger had repatriated 946 of its nationals, Benin 547, Ghana 400 and Nigeria, which had suspended its repatriations, 2609, Masse told IRIN. Many more people had gone back home on their own. These included about 34,000 Burkinabe and around 2,000 people from Niger. An association of Guinean migrants, the Haut Conseil des Guineens en Cote d’Ivoire (Higher Council of Guineans in Cote d’Ivoire) had organised transport for 1,242 persons, who paid their own fares.
Guinea’s Service National d’Action Humanitaire (SENAH), which is part of the Ministry of the Interior, said on 5 November that about 8,600 Guinean returnees had been registered crossing the border from Cote d’Ivoire, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Conakry reported. It said SENAH estimated that about 200 Guineans were arriving daily.
In the case of Mali, UNHCR reported that as at 11 November, just under 5,000 people had arrived from Cote d’Ivoire. However, a crisis committee in Sikasso, a Malian region close to the Ivorian border, estimated that as many as 7,300 non-Malians had arrived from Cote d’Ivoire through official crossing points in southern Mali from 19 September to 5 November.
Complaints of abuses
Some of the returnees have complained of abuse at the hands of loyalist forces in Cote d’Ivoire. On 24 October, Mali protested to the United Nations in New York that Malians had been subjected to “violence, atrocities, disappearances and even death,” in particular in Daloa, western Cote d’Ivoire.
The atrocities, also documented by human rights groups, followed the recapture of Daloa from the insurgents, who had occupied it briefly, according to Malian officials, human rights groups and media. Many of the Malians arrived destitute, officials said. They complained that their belongings had been taken from them in Cote d’Ivoire. Some also said they had left family members behind.
The war has also taken a toll on thousands of Ivorian families. Many people in the south of the country have had no news of close relatives blocked in the north. In Korhogo, over 600 km north of Abidjan, telephone connections were down for weeks and were only reestablished in late November.
Few people have been able to leave Korhogo because there are not many vehicles which travel from there to locations farther south and those that do charge exhorbitant fees, according to residents of the town.
On the other hand, between 200,000 and 300,000 people left Bouake between 19 September and late November. The town, located 350 km north of Abidjan, had a population of about 600,000 before the crisis.
Displacement splits families
Bouake resident Pascualine Blei fled the town soon after the rebels took over, leaving her septuagenarian aunt Janette Bah behind. Five weeks passed with neither knowing what had become of the other. Then, on 6 November, they met by chance at a transit camp in the Ivorian capital, Yamassoukro. Overcome by emotion, the two women embraced each other. “She is the only relative I have in this town, except for my (infant) daughter,” Blei (25) told IRIN in Yamassoukro.
But Gbaka’s relief at finding her niece was outweighed by her concern for her son, who had remained behind in Bouake after placing his elderly mother in the care of an acquaintance with whom she trekked for kilometres before reaching a location where they could find transport. What made her leave? Fear, she said. Her greatest wish, she added, was to see her son in Yamassoukro.
Another internally displaced person (IDP) in Yamassoukro said he fled Bouake because he had no money or food left and also because of fear since rebels had abducted people in his neighbourhood and they had not been heard of since. Other IDPs, officials in Abidjan, media and rights groups have complained of atrocities such as extrajudicial executions by the rebels, especially in early October.
Humanitarian agencies are worried that, should the situation in Cote d’Ivoire deteriorate, the capacity of governments and international organisations to assist those who want to leave the country, and vulnerable populations within it could be severely taxed.
At the latest population census, done in 1998, there were about 15.37 million people in Cote d’Ivoire, of whom some 26 percent (about 4.0 million) were foreigners. Over half, 2.2 million, were from Burkina Faso, and about 20 percent (792,258) were from Mali. The remainder came mainly from Guinea, Benin, Niger, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, Togo, Senegal and Mauritania, in order of numerical importance.
Exodus could increase
“Should just one percent of Ivorians and 10 percent of foreigners decide to leave Cote d’Ivoire, that’s already about half-a-million people,” a humanitarian official based in a neighbouring country told IRIN.
Already, the spread of insecurity to western Cote d’Ivoire, where two towns, Danane and Man, were attacked by new rebel factions in the last week of November, has caused a fresh exodus in direction of Liberia. Many people have fled to Guinea, where arrivals topped 1,700 on 30 November and 1 December. Others have gone to Liberia, some 10, 000 of whose nationals had already returned home from Cote d’Ivoire since 19 September.
On 21 November, UN humanitarian agencies appealed jointly for US $15.9 million to cater for the needs of migrants displaced to Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Mali, those transiting through these countries on their way home, and vulnerable groups in Cote d’Ivoire. These include internally displaced persons (IDPs), host families, and people in regions occupied by insurgents. The areas covered by the appeal are food security, health, water and sanitation, protection, human rights, education, logistics and coordination.
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