Côte d'Ivoire

Survival test for Ivory Coast's city in limbo

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Clar Ni Chonghaile

BOUAKE, Ivory Coast, March 6 (Reuters) - At the noisy market in Bouake, you could be fooled into thinking things are normal in Ivory Coast's second-largest city and rebel stronghold.

Stalls are stacked with everything from DVDs to sports bags to tiny portable radios. But every now and then, a jeep packed with armed men slides past and any visitor quickly realises this is a city at war, and in limbo.

"The biggest problem is money," said Mory Traore, who is selling DVDs for 3,000 CFA francs ($5), each. "Things just slow down when there is no money."

Bouake's banks are closed. Its people are struggling to survive on barters and handouts.

And the rebels who captured the city in September after a failed coup against President Laurent Gbagbo, fear this frustration may lead to radical ideas, such as going it alone.

"We believe in territorial integrity," said Guillaume Soro, frontman for the main rebel Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast. "If not, we would have declared secession two days after the uprising, but it is a risk because time is being wasted."

"When a crisis continues, people become radical. Each time someone dies on either side, this accentuates the bitterness."

Bouake was once a crossroads for traffic between the north and the southern port city of Abidjan but five months of war have crippled the economy of the world's largest cocoa grower.

Fighting has mostly petered off into a political stalemate, except in the west near Liberia where two other rebel groups are battling loyalist forces. All sides have hired Liberians.

Under a French-brokered peace deal agreed in January, a government, including rebels, was supposed to be set up but political wrangling over top jobs has stalled the process.

Meanwhile people have to live.

Sidiki Konate, an MPCI spokesman, said people in Bouake and elsewhere in the rebel-held north are learning to organise themselves independently, and the more time passes, the harder it will be for them to go back to the pre-war status quo.

"We believe in a unified country. We are not separatists," he said. "But there is a need for structural organisation. We cannot make the population pay the price of the impasse. We have to make life easier for them."

MONEY, MONEY, MONEY

In Bouake's market support for the rebels is high but then it probably would be given they are the only administrative and military force in town, and their young fighters cruise the streets with their AK47 assault rifles dangling carelessly.

Many shops are open, children are back at school being taught by volunteers and some big factories are slowly cranking back into action. But the big worry is money and how to get it.

Traore survives by sending his DVDs to neighbouring Mali to be sold. A couple of stalls away, Karigatou Diabate, 19, sometimes swaps lacy knickers from her stock for food.

"We get by. This is all old stock," she says. Diabate is fed up, and like many vendors feels Gbagbo should quit. "If this carries on, we women will put on uniforms and march on Abidjan ourselves," she said, to cheers from fellow female sellers.

Bouake is some 350 km (217 miles) from Abidjan -- seat of the government and the main economic hub -- and just 100 km (62 miles) north of the government-controlled capital Yamoussoukro.

In the middle are West African and French troops who were rushed to the former French colony to enforce a cease-fire agreed between the MPCI and the government last October.

Konate recognises the absence of banks is a problem. He says it was agreed during early peace talks that an economic corridor would be opened between government- and rebel-held zones.

"But the central authority opposes that. The people in charge don't realise that the state is dying every day," he said.

DVD seller Traore says people from Bouake would be upset to break away because, after all, Abidjan is still the main city. But for him, it depends on the president.

"If Gbagbo does not change, we prefer to stay with our guys," he says, gesturing toward the passing rebel jeeps.

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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