Côte d'Ivoire

Côte d'Ivoire: Lust for cocoa land feeds ethnic killings

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GUITROZON, 8 June (IRIN) - The prime minister visited the scorched remains of this village in the volatile west of Côte d'Ivoire last week. The army chief of staff paid his respects. And the minister of administrative reform, who was born in the area, buried the dead.

The dozens of dead were laid to rest in a mass grave at the entrance of the village, next to the main road. The patch of freshly dug brown forest earth skirts a roadblock manned by Cote d'Ivoire security forces.

All that is left of Guitrozon today is burned huts, abandoned houses and the heavy smell of a disinfectant that was used to wash the victims' blood off the cement floors. Clothes, pots and pans are scattered outside some of the homes. Their owners have either died or fled.

At least 60 villagers were killed here last Wednesday in the worst ethnic revenge killing western Cote d'Ivoire has seen in years. A week later the massacre continues to stir political repercussions.

All the victims that day were from the Guere ethnic group, while the attackers are widely believed to have been so-called northerners, or Dioula, people from northern rebel-held Cote d'Ivoire and its neighbours to the north, Burkina Faso and Mali.

For generations, the Guere and Dioula conquered the land to cultivate the most fertile cocoa plantations in the country, which is the world's top producer of the bean.

Climate of fear

"It's when we heard screaming that we knew something was wrong," said Cesar Ble, an aide to the chief of Guitrozon. "They first attacked silently with machetes but when people started screaming they used guns."

Ble, who guards the deserted village with a handful of young men, with a jab of his finger pointed towards the Ivorian soldiers at the roadblock. "They did not even come. Just one soldier fired off three rocket-propelled grenades, I heard later it was against his superiors' orders."

"Then the UN peacekeepers arrived," he said. "And it stopped."

Guitrozon is located on the edge of a UN-patrolled confidence zone that runs across the country separating the rebel-held north from the government-run south.

Cote d'Ivoire's almost three-year-long civil war has aggravated, but not caused, the tension over land ownership between the indigenous Guere and the northerners, believed to be at the root of the ethnic strife.

Several days before the attack on Guitrozon, four farmers of the northern Senoufo ethnic group were found murdered there. Two victims had their genitals severed. It was yet another incident in a seemingly endless series of tit-for-tat killings for which the region around Duekoue has become notorious.

Following the clashes in Guitrozon, thousands of cocoa farmers fled with their women and children to the nearby town of Duekoue. Their outrage about the inertia of the Ivorian armed forces did not fall on deaf ears. On Wednesday, the chief of staff of the armed forces, Philippe Mangou, arrived to install a new commander for Duekoue.

But fear still reigns

Over the weekend, armed attackers killed at least four Dioulas. "Every morning," said one resident on condition of anonymity, "we get up and ask: was there anybody killed last night?"

According to Duekoue Mayor Victor Tiehi, at least 30 villages around the town have been abandoned by frightened inhabitants. Tiehi said the death toll from the last week's violence stood at 103, according to his data.

"There is a psychosis of fear in this region," Tiehi said, sitting in a windowless office that looked more like a warehouse than a town hall. Bags of rice from Pakistan, donated by government officials over the weekend, were piled to the ceiling and occupied at least half of his office floor. Bags of anti-fever medicine were stacked in a corner.

"The town is infested with wrongdoers, the confidence zone is completely lawless, the rebels are nearby and there are arms everywhere," Tiehi said. "I wish I could do something about the confidence zone but I am powerless, I have no authority there."

The buffer zone is manned by part of the 10,000-strong peacekeeping force, 6,000 of them UN troops, the remainder French soldiers serving in the so-called Licorne force under UN mandate.

Fighting for the land

But many residents complain about lawlessness in the region. The security forces, they say, are only preoccupied with making money from roadblocks. The UN troops usually come too late. As for the French peacekeepers, they ceded their military camp in town to the UN amid a wave of anti-French feeling last November.

Tiehi heaved a sigh. "Listen," he said. "This is all about the wealth of our soil. If you look at geography, you'll see that the immigrants vastly outnumber the Guere, the natives. There is no village in this region where there are more Guere than foreigners. There are people who want our land because it is rich. It's as simple as that."

Today, the cocoa-growing town of Duekoue is dangerously split in two.

Thousands of displaced indigenous Guere have crowded together at the Catholic Mission in the centre of town. On the other side are the "foreigners" - Ivorians from the north, people of the Malinke or Baoule ethnic group, and immigrants.

Over the past weeks, the Catholic Mission has had to deal with several waves of displaced people. About 7,000 people flooded the church grounds late April following bloody clashes in town between Guere youth and Dioula transporters.

By mid-May most of those displaced had returned home, but now thousands more have invaded the mission, turning it into a de facto refugee camp.

"I have left everything behind," said Jean Djin, a resident of Duekoue. "The Dioula chased me away on 28 May. They came to my house armed with machetes and sticks and said I should leave the neighbourhood. I am afraid to go back so I am sleeping in the mission."

Many Guere said they were worried that attackers, be they rebels or farmers, were planning to "take over" Duekoue. That way, they said, the attackers would control the cocoa business.

Father Francesco, one of the four priests running the mission, described the fighting as "an old problem" and a "very, very complex one." The priest, whose face was unshaved, looked tired and worried.

"You see these tents," he said, pointing at the tarpaulins provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). "At night, they're completely overcrowded. We need to build more."

Food was not lacking, as the mission had received 40 tonnes of rice. But Father Francesco said at least seven Guere villages in the region had been razed and he was worried the violence would not stop.

"Nobody is even trying to find those who are guilty," he said. "People here know each other, these things don't happen in secret. It would suffice to arrest four or five of them and send them to jail. But as long as the guilty parties are not arrested, the problem will not go away."

Outrage over the killings

Killings trigger As the Ivorian authorities come under domestic fire for the revenge slayings, the UN Security Council issued a statement in New York on Tuesday urging Cote d'Ivoire "to conduct without delay an inquiry on these crimes, so that their perpetrators are quickly brought to justice and condemned."

"The Ivorian authorities are responsible for ensuring the security of civilians," the UN said.

The massacre has unleashed a storm of political outrage in Cote d'Ivoire.

The ruling Ivorian Popular Front's (FPI) parliamentary group has walked out of the assembly demanding that Prime Minister Seydou Diarra resign for failing to stop the killings. The opposition coalition known as the G7 meanwhile has accused President Laurant Gbagbo of "duplicity" because the army failed to step in to stop the massacres.

While most of the people seriously injured in the attacks over the last few days have been transferred to a hospital in nearby Daloa, the local hospital in Duekoue has been receiving new patients almost every day, head doctor Richard Kore said.

Leafing through slips of paper on his desk, he said: "On Monday, we had four dead and four injured."

"One of the injured was a member of the FLGO (pro-government) militia. He was carrying his membership card with him. He was one of the men who had attacked a Dioula house and the local population had caught him and nearly lynched him."

While northern-based rebels are often blamed for attacks on indigenous groups, pro-government militias are sometimes suspected of attacks on immigrants and other "northerners." Last week the bodies of two immigrant workers were found in an area of Duekoue widely known to be the headquarters of the pro-government Patriotic Alliance of the We People militia.

In Duekoue hospital, asked if he had enough medicine and equipment to treat patients, Kore smiled a weary smile.

"Yes, we have plenty," he said. "That's not the problem. The problem is this: none of the authorities are trying to find out what the root of the problem is. They should try to solve the land dispute. But the authorities just come and hand out rice and money and then they speed off to the city again."

"It is a land problem in my opinion," he said. "The Guere sold their land cheaply and now they want it back, but they can't have it back because the immigrants are on the right side of the law. And as long as this is not solved, these attacks will continue."

[ENDS]

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