Côte d'Ivoire

Cote d'Ivoire: Feature - Holding the line in a ruined rebel land

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By James Knight and Katrina Manson

ODIENNE, Ivory Coast, July 10 (Reuters) - When rebels took over Seguelo Soro's town in northern Ivory Coast, the doctor's first thought was for his patients and he refused to run away.

"I didn't want to leave the people without access to doctors. I thought to myself that the rebels can't kill everyone, so I will look after the ones they don't kill. I'm not a soldier ... so they've no reason to do anything to me."

Soro was a school doctor in the northwestern town of Odienne in 2002 when rebels attempted a coup and seized the north of the West African nation, sparking a war that has killed thousands and crippled a one-time economic powerhouse.

Three years later, the mainly Muslim north is a forgotten hungry land, run by rebels, bereft of basic services and frozen by a war that drags on despite a series of peace deals.

When the fighting started in 2002, thousands of public service workers fled south, terrified of being dubbed rebel sympathisers by the southern authorities who pay their wages.

But some, like Soro, stayed and battle daily to stave off a humanitarian disaster.

Soro is the only medic at Odienne's hospital, where he treats 200 people a day, seven days a week.

The hospital has running water only two hours a day. Workers hoard ice because the generator is broken and every power cut puts refrigerated vaccines at risk.

"The lack of water is a particular problem during childbirth," said Soro. "It means other illnesses come, like fever and diarrhoea, which are increasing. We've not yet had any cases of cholera, but it's only a matter of time. "

The nearest surgeons are hundreds of kilometres (miles) away. "If someone needs urgent attention, that's a long, rough journey," said Soro. "People have died on the way."

SEVERE DROUGHT

The dire humanitarian situation weighs heavily on people already living with the daily fear of attack.

Last November, government planes bombed rebel towns, killing 87 civilians according to rebels and shattering an 18-month ceasefire. Another peace accord has been signed since then but like the dead-letter deals before, it has stalled.

The delays prolong the agony of millions of northerners.

Health care is just one problem -- drought means water and food are in short supply in a region that has always been removed from the industry and wealth of the steamy south and the cocoa-rich west.

In the north's second city of Korhogo, home to 250,000 people, there is no running water and the reservoir is empty.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) pumps 500,000 litres of water a day from disused boreholes into tanks to fight what it calls "an exceptionally severe drought."

The ICRC is also maintaining the water supply in 80 towns in a 1.3 million euro ($1.58 million) European Union-funded scheme.

Rebels in Korhogo have commandeered trucks to fetch water daily from Ferkessedougou, 50 km (30 miles) away on a bust-up road. The water is carried in 10,000-litre bladders, which are then placed at distribution points in the town.

FOOD RUNNING OUT

The drought means food is also running out.

"With no rain since April, there is a fast growing food problem," says Francois Sono, director of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

"This will really come to bear during the traditional lean season, which lasts until September. It will be very hard."

Some of the worst affected are thousands of cotton farmers whose payments were suspended by the companies that buy their pods after the war erupted. The companies accused them of smuggling cotton across the northern borders.

In February, the rebels organised talks between the two sides to end the standoff, but only 4 billion CFA francs ($7.4 million) out of a total 15 billion CFA settlement agreed has been paid.

Cotton companies also used to give farmers fertilisers as payment in kind. Without them, they are not able to grow crops to feed their families.

"Without the inputs needed to grow maize, rice and grain, there will be no food for next year," warned Alphonse Soro, the head of the rebels' civil cabinet for the north.

"We're heading for a famine, a catastrophe," he said.

Northern Ivory Coast is no stranger to hardship -- in fact, alleged neglect by southern authorities was one of the reasons given by many rebels for their uprising.

Rebels are defiant about their ability to cope.

"Do you see a cholera epidemic here?" asked Chief Vasco, a rebel leader in Odienne. "We rely on ourselves."

Everyone tries to make do. In the village of Waraniene, just outside Korhogo, expert weavers who make robes, bags and rugs from locally spun cotton are enjoying a brief respite with the arrival of thousands of peacekeepers.

Sina Coulibaly's most recent sale was two weeks ago.

"A green rug to a French soldier for 11,000 CFA. It should have been 14,000 CFA, but times are hard so I dropped the price," the 43-year-old father of seven said.

But pickings are slim for the many workers, who used to sell to busloads of tourists visiting Korhogo.

"In the past I used to sell about 10 things a week -- others sold more -- so we didn't do badly, but now it's really hard," said Coulibaly. "I'd be so glad if the war finished."

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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