by Robbie Corey-Boulet
ABIDJAN — In the past two weeks, three attacks have killed at least 13 people and displaced thousands in western Ivory Coast.
Local officials say the attacks in Ivory Coast were carried out by armed groups crossing the border from neighboring Liberia. Ivorian combatants and Liberian mercenaries fled into Liberia when Ivory Coast's post-election conflict ended nearly two years ago, and Human Rights Watch has accused them of involvement in sporadic attacks dating as far back as July 2011.
The post-election conflict was sparked by the refusal of former President Laurent Gbagbo to concede defeat in the November 2010 vote against his successor, President Alassane Ouattara.
The recent attacks have been early-morning raids. On March 13, gunmen killed two soldiers and five civilians in the town of Zilebly. A raid on March 21 resulted in no deaths, though three assailants were arrested and weapons including AK-47s were recovered. Two days later, an attack on a village outside the town of Blolequin resulted in six deaths, three of them assailants.
U.N. refugee agency senior protection officer Jackie Keegan says more than 6,000 people fled in response to the three attacks, and that roughly 2,700 were still displaced.
“Many of these villages were entirely emptied during the post-election crisis and remained empty for months into 2011," said Keegan. "Both the communities that fled and the communities that are now hosting them are really just recovering now from that experience. And the destruction of villages and also of stocks, including grain stocks, is going to have a significant impact on their ability to reestablish themselves.”
Of the estimated 2,700 displaced people, 1,700 are living with host families. Keegan noted they might need food “should the situation continue for much longer,” and said the World Food Program is evaluating the situation.
The remaining 1,000 are living on four sites specifically designated for the displaced, where they have received food from local authorities and also vaccinations.
Besides causing the most significant displacement in the region this year, the recent attacks have also disrupted the return of refugees from Liberia. The United Nations said the March 21 attack prevented a convoy of 160 Ivorians from making the trip back to their home country.
Keegan said the attacks could also discourage other refugees from making the decision to return.
“Refugees, of course, have the right to make a decision about whether they are prepared to return at any moment, and it is natural that after a series of attacks of this sort that the number of candidates for return drops, which is what happened last year," Keegan added. "I think it is very natural - people start to ask questions about the durability of their return.”
U.N. officials in Liberia said this week that they had temporarily halted the repatriation of refugees pending an improved security situation across the border.