As Ivory Coast Recovers, One Region is Stuck in a Cycle of Hate

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Philippe Desmazes / AFP / Getty Images

People sit in a refugee camp on April 16, 2011 in the Catholic missionary in Doueke, western Ivory Coast.

At first, Honorie Guei was simply relieved she had survived the post-electoral violence in Ivory Coast. But after 14 weeks in a crowded refugee camp in the west of the country, the 31-year-old market trader has begun to despair.

"If we are working in the fields, our sweat cleanses us," Guei says, gesturing at the thick, hilly forests that dominate the landscape in the western region of Moyen Cavally. "But all of us living here together, people are dying every day." She is preparing to attend two funerals today, the latest victims of a cholera outbreak in the camp. She worries, she says, that it will be her funeral next.

Guei is one of around 30,000 people who sought shelter in a Catholic churchyard in the western capital of Duékoué when civil conflict engulfed much of Ivory Coast in December. Four months of violence ensued, as former ruler Laurent Gbagbo refused to concede defeat in a run-off election to his rival, Alassane Ouattara.

These days, stores are reporting a brisk trade for the first time since April, when Ouattara's troops, with help from French and United Nations forces, pulled a still-defiant Gbagbo from his bunker in the presidential palace. On the back of the newly installed president's can-do attitude, new businesses are springing up across the commercial capital, Abidjan. But as the rest of Ivory Coast sets off on the road to recovery, the western region lags behind, threatening to stall progress down the line.

Long an ungovernable tinderbox of ethnic tensions, the west was wracked with brutal fighting trigged by the disputed elections. Potent xenophobia peddled by Gbagbo's government against northerners with migrant roots — who form the bulk of Ouattara's support base — was exacerbated by land disputes in the resource-rich and fertile region. Pro-Gbagbo militias, mainly from the southern ethnic tribes such as the Guéré, held sway in the region for over a decade and had complete impunity as they regularly clashed with northerners. As the rebels allied to Ouattara swept southwards to join forces with insurgents in Abidjan, the tables turned. On April 2, human-rights groups revealed three mass graves in Duékoué, in total containing the bodies of up to 1,000 civilians — predominantly from the Guéré tribe.

Ouattara has since appointed the disparate rebel groups who backed him to the role of the national army, effectively legitimizing warlords who grew rich from racketeering and smuggling. Although many Ivorians feel the president's hand was forced, since he owes his ascension to the rebels, his naming the head of the former rebel movement as army chief left even some supporters worried. In other quarters, the move provoked intense anger.

"We've no homes to go to because the rebels burnt our village," Guei says. "It's an insult to us that warlords are now sitting at the president's table. If I were a man, I'd have picked up a gun and started another rebellion myself." Another Guéré woman nearby recounts how she was forced to sing and dance for pro-Ouattara fighters as they hacked off her husband's feet; yet another survived by hiding in the bush for four days. At checkpoints — made out of piles of dead bodies — the women were harassed and stripped of all their belongings. Men were sometimes summarily executed.

But not everyone sympathizes with the plight of the families strewn across half a dozen refugee camps in the district. "For years we were subject to daily terror by Gbagbo's supporters, who had complete immunity, just because we are northerners," says cocoa farmer Kareem Ouedraogo, whose parents settled in Duékoué from Burkina Faso. "Now they know how the other half lived."

The mutual suspicion and resentment is shared by many, and highlights the major obstacles reconciliation efforts must surmount. At a local community meeting in Duékoué on July 6, an announcement of plans by non-governmental organizations to build a new village for Guéré survivors was heckled down. Building a new village, one northern village chief explains, would lead to segregation. "When our parents had their homes destroyed, we were forced to rebuild them with our own hands. It should be an eye for an eye before we start talking reconciliation," he adds.

And there are other problems. A 200-km-long porous border with Liberia, itself recovering from back-to-back wars, makes the area difficult to police. In a region awash with weapons, the number of armed robberies on the already notorious roads have shot upwards since Ouattara's soldiers took power, residents from both sides of the political divide agree. With no formal census for the new army, many pro-Ouattara civilians have simply donned combat fatigues and picked up guns.

"Insecurity in the region has increased lately, but that's why we are also increasing patrols," a soldier at one of the periodic, bullet-ridden checkpoints in the area says. In the past two weeks, 14 deaths and dozens of injuries have been recorded at the local police station, he adds.

Ouattara has said that he's president for all Ivorians, irrespective of tribal divisions. Meanwhile, ahead of potentially explosive legislative elections, the government has pledged to install eight military bastions across the two districts that make up the western region. But questions remain as to how effective these attempts to instill calm will be and whether the politics of ethnicity can be overcome. "Right now, those at the top want peace," says Guei. "But those at the bottom are only concerned with revenge."