By Vivian Siu and Gaelle Bausson
NEW YORK, USA/DAKAR, Senegal, 1 April 2011 – UNICEF staff in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire have been trapped in their offices for a second day, as forces loyal to President-elect Alassane Ouattara made an assault on the country's commercial capital, Abidjan, in a bid to oust outgoing President Laurent Gbagbo and put an end to a political stalemate that has now lasted for four months and one day.
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Looting, vandalism and fires continue to envelope UNICEF's country office in Abidjan and in the west of the country, preventing staff from reaching children and women endangered by violent confrontations and the suspension of key services, such as immunization campaigns.
The situation is highly volatile. "There's a lot of shooting around the office," said UNICEF Senior Emergency Specialist Marc Salvail in a radio interview. "Next door, a shopping centre that's been a main supply [hub] for the office staff is burning to the ground. We also have reports of people being killed and lying in the streets."
Aid for the displaced and refugees
Around 1 million people, the majority of them children and women, have fled violence to find refuge in churches and Catholic missions, or to seek asylum in Liberia, Guinea and Ghana. In Abidjan alone, an estimated 500,000 people have been displaced since the start of the political crisis – and "in the last few days, 120,000 people have been registered in refugee camps and with host families," said Mr. Salvail.
Despite these challenges, UNICEF is working to provide affected children and families with water, nutrition supplements, hygiene and other supplies. Essential medicine and basic health services are also a key priority since most, if not all, of the country's health centres have shut down.
"What UNICEF has been able to do, in the context of the escalation of violence in Abidjan, is bring along two trucks where we could at least reach affected mothers and children," said Mr. Salvail. The trucks delivered some basic items, including BP5 fortified biscuits, as well as buckets for fetching water and mats for people to use for sleeping, he added.
It is imperative that UNICEF maintain an active presence in Côte d'Ivoire and provide immediate assistance to children and families affected by the crisis. The agency needs $22 million in order to meet the most pressing humanitarian needs in the areas of health and nutrition; water, sanitation and hygiene; and education.
UNICEF is working to ensure the provision of safe water and hygiene kits for 1.5 million people, plus school supplies and teacher training for 1.2 million children. It is also working with partners to keep at least 200 health centres remain functional, in order to provide basic maternal and child care against a potential scenario of a complete breakdown of the health system.
"As soon as access becomes possible, we're talking about perhaps a million people that would need some sort of lifesaving assistance," said Mr. Salvail.