Surviving Gbagbo: Escape from Ivory Coast

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Rebecca Blackwell / AP

A resident of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, celebrates the news of Laurent Gbagbo's capture on April 11, 2011

The French embassy in Ivory Coast announced on Monday, April 11, that Ivory Coast security forces had arrested incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo, after major fighting that since March 31 had torn apart the city of Abidjan. TIME reporter Monica Mark was caught up in the chaos. This is her report of a week of surviving the siege.

I should really have known better. But I'd lived in Ivory Coast for two years, working as a journalist out of Abidjan, as had my boyfriend Tim Cocks, a reporter for Reuters, and we were comfortable and perhaps too complacent. We certainly knew there was trouble ahead, but we thought the war would be over quickly. But now, after one of the longest weeks of my life, I should have realized the reckoning was going to be bloody. The signs were everywhere.

It should have been evident from the stubbornness of Laurent Gbagbo. After delaying elections for five years, the incumbent President lost a U.N.-certified runoff in November 2010 to his challenger, Alassane Ouattara. Gbagbo refused to relinquish power, and the killings began. In Abidjan, the commercial capital of the country and the font of political power, hundreds of Ouattara supporters were targeted by the pro-Gbagbo army and police forces. In response, sleeper rebel cells who backed Ouattara emerged to counter the regime forces in the city, creating a low-level conflict that trapped the civilian population in the middle.

But it wasn't quite full-blown war, and life didn't seem dramatically altered. We got used to the sounds of gunfire and heavy weapons booming across town. We avoided the parts of the city that had become deserted ghost towns. The curfews, the economic meltdown and the army's increasing violence were so stealthy that we simply adapted to each shift in routine and carried on. Ivorians who could afford to get away from all the inconvenience had long since gone to Europe. Besides, for Tim and me, it was a story to cover.

We knew that fighting would inevitably reach the street where we lived. It did not take much to foresee that: practically next to us was the state broadcaster, a potent propaganda weapon in Gbagbo's arsenal and one that Ouattara backers would certainly want to take from the incumbent. Our contingency was to wait out the violence in a hotel in the city's center once it reached us. We could continue working from there.

But on March 19, I realized that the trouble could well be overwhelming. On that day, Gbagbo called his youthful backers to a mass enlistment at the army barracks. Some 30,000 of them turned up, baying for the blood of anyone who didn't back their President. Empowered by a newly felt immunity as members of Gbagbo's military, the young people, toting Kalashnikovs, set up hundreds of roadblocks overnight. The state propaganda machine got nastier, inciting violence against Ivorians who dared question Gbagbo. The government simply labeled such offenders "foreigners." Meanwhile, we journalists were branded "terrorists." The rest of the world — as envisaged in the U.N. peacekeepers, who were augmented by the French — was regarded as an "occupation force." Taking pictures in the country suddenly required written consent from Gbagbo's wife Simone, a woman with no formal executive power.

The political impasse between the two Presidents had dragged on almost four months, with each man ensconced in his section of Abidjan: Gbagbo in the presidential residence in Cocody; Ouattara in the Golf Hotel, just a few kilometers away, protected by U.N. troops. But then, beginning March 21, a motley assortment of pro-Ouattara rebels suddenly swept down from their northern enclaves, reaching the gates of Abidjan on the southern coast at the end of March. Alarmed, friends of ours in the city started turning up at our doorstep with belongings hurriedly stuffed into plastic bags. They would spend a night or two with us and then drift to anywhere other than Abidjan.

As Ouattara's army reached Abidjan on Thursday, March 31, we moved into the Novotel in the Plateau district of town. We chose it purely on a whim. It faced one of the many lagoons that make up the city. We overlooked the fact that the Novotel is also 500 meters away from the presidential palace, a key symbol of state power and a likely trophy in any war. (The palace is the administrative center of the presidency; the presidential residence is a separate edifice that lies across another lagoon.) Like most journalists and supposedly knowledgeable observers, we believed the propaganda emanating from Ouattara's camp and imagined that what happened in 80% of the country would also happen in Abidjan: that the city would fall to the forces of the U.N.-certified President. We thought we'd be home by the weekend.

But as we drove away from our apartment, a blaze of running gun battles erupted behind us. By the time we'd checked into the Novotel, the city had become a full-blown war zone. After dropping us off, our driver, Ouattara Karamoko, could no longer cross town to return to his own house. He ended up trapped with us at the hotel.

It's now incomprehensible why we imagined the nightmare wouldn't really touch us. Or why we never calculated the speed with which it did finally strike. By Friday, April 1, we could no longer sit out on the Novotel terrace, because a stray bullet had sailed in and lodged into one of its walls. Stepping outside the hotel property was out of the question, as even more bullets were flying by. Meanwhile, gangs of youths with machetes and guns swarmed everywhere. We tried to gauge the risks by watching how many Ivorians ventured out each day. When the overnight bombings weren't too fierce, they went out in the morning to fill buckets, pots and canisters with murky lagoon water. Whenever a U.N. patrol went by, I opened my fourth-floor window and — like most civilians in the streets — cheered them on.

From the Novotel, we could look south across the stretch of brackish water of the Ebrie Lagoon into the Treichville district, where Gbagbo's elite Republican Guard had stationed themselves just half a kilometer away from us. We could see their tiny silhouettes running around, getting into navy speedboats or — to our delight — scurrying away whenever a U.N. helicopter hovered into view. We were watching, too, when flames roared for several hours after the weapons stashed there were hit by a U.N. or Licorne missile. The U.N.'s April 4 decision to take sides — by launching military strikes in conjunction with the French — was an astounding development not just for us but for Ivorians as well.

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