Côte d'Ivoire

Cote d' Ivoire: Ivorians scared to return to volatile "Wild West"

Originally published
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

LOGUATUO, 7 March (IRIN) - In this small Liberian village just over the border from Cote d'Ivoire, one out of every 10 people is a French-speaking Ivorian refugee fleeing the country's volatile "Wild West."

"Help us please," said Eugenie Lambe, a 24-year-old who last November fled western Cote d'Ivoire to Liberia along with her grandmother, mother and eight brothers and sisters, fearing a new flare-up of fighting in the country's two-and-a-half-year conflict.

The hilly "Wild West" straddling Liberia and Cote d'Ivoire remains a region of tension and fear.

"Whenever white people come here we tell them of our suffering. They ask questions, but when they leave they do nothing to help," Lambe said.

While tens of thousands of Liberian refugees are still living in Cote d'Ivoire despite a year and a half of peace in Liberia, a mass of frightened people fled in the other direction late last year. A total 3,406 Ivorians turned up here in tiny Loguatuo, seeking assistance.

By now most have moved on inland to the Saclepea refugee camp housing thousands of Ivorians and Sierra Leoneans, but 346 are still housed in the village of 3,000 people, said local Red Cross member Michael Towon.

"They live with families, but people here are poor and there isn't enough food or medicine to go around," he said.

Eugenie Lambe and her family fled Man, the main town in western Cote d'Ivoire, when President Laurent Gbagbo launched an air assault on 4 November to pave the way for a ground offensive to dislodge rebels that have controlled the northern half of the country since the outbreak of war in September 2002.

"There were rumours Gbagbo was going to bomb Man after he bombed Bouake (the north-eastern rebel stronghold) and that the rebels would kill anyone suspected of infiltrating their ranks," said Lambe's 39-year-old mother Martine Don.

"We couldn't stay there any longer. We walked through the forest for several days eating fresh cassava until we reached Loguatuo."

Her husband also fled but has not yet reappeared.

Food shortages

"I want to stay here because the people speak Yacouba," Don added. "An old woman has lent us a hut to sleep in, but we have to work for days in the fields to get any rice."

However, a lack of food is not enough to persuade the mother and daughter to return home.

"Even if there's nothing to eat, at least we feel safe here," said Lambe. "At home you can't feel sure even for a moment. We've seen too many atrocities. We can't go back now, we have nothing left there."

Loguatuo's only nurse says that 35 percent of the patients seeking care at the local clinic come from the Ivorian side of the border.

Over the border in Cote d'Ivoire, in the rebel-held region of Danane that is home to an estimated 385,000 people, only two out of four hospitals are open and war or staff shortages have destroyed or closed 27 health centres.

Stalked by war for more than a decade, the Ivorian west is a volatile place.

There are few men visible nowadays in the rebel-held villages, with those residents left behind saying the men have either gone to fight, or fled for fear of being recruited.

The area is also a haven for arms smugglers and unemployed ex-Liberian combatants ready to work as hired guns.

As recently as the end of last week, UN officials in New York said there had been reports of gunshots on the eastern side of Danane, and that groups of men had been milling around across the border in Liberia.

"UN peacekeepers from the UN Mission in Liberia based in Loguatuo, a town almost opposite Danane on the Liberian side, told the UN mission in Cote d'Ivoire they saw concentrations of unidentified persons around that area," Fred Eckhard, the spokesman for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, told reporters on Friday.

Ethnic patchwork

Cote d'Ivoire's "Wild West" is also an ethnic patchwork, where tensions run deep. The 10,000 international peacekeepers -- from the UN and former colonial power France -- that monitor the buffer zone between the rebel-held north and loyalist south have not been able to fully secure it.

Yacoubas on both sides of the border tend to back the rebel New Forces while the region's ethnic Bete people support Gbagbo, himself a Bete.

The many migrant workers in the area, largely from Burkina Faso, meanwhile live in fear of attack from pro-government groups.

At the end of February, months of mounting tension in the western border region erupted into the worse hostilities seen in the West African country in more than three months, when pro-Gbagbo militia attacked the rebel village of Logouale.

Eyewitnesses reported at least 15 people killed and UN peacekeepers captured 85 assailants.

Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Ivorian Movement for the Liberation of the West of Cote d'Ivoire (MILOCI), a new militia headed by a man known as Pastor Gammi.

General Abdoulaye Fall, commander of the UN peacekeeping force in Cote d'Ivoire, said some of those arrested after the pre-dawn attack said they had been sent from Abidjan by Charles Ble Goude, the leader of the Young Patriots, a militia-style pro-Gbagbo youth movement.

It also emerged that the pre-dawn militia attack on Logouale had been accompanied by an attack on a nearby village inhabited by immigrants from Burkina Faso who are widely viewed as being sympathetic to the rebels. The source who visited the scene of the battle at Logouale said the village had been burned down by the attackers.


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