DUEKOUE, Côte d'Ivoire, April 7 (UNHCR) – Relative calm has allowed the UN refugee agency to resume the distribution of vital assistance to tens of thousands of forcibly displaced people in the western Côte d'Ivoire town of Duékoué.
This morning, UNHCR implementing partner CARITAS started handing out blankets, sleeping mats, plastic sheeting, kitchen sets, jerrycans, soap and sanitary kits in the Catholic mission in Duékoué. The World Food Programme ran a simultaneous food distribution.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported earlier this week that at least 800 people were killed on March 29 in intercommunal violence in Duékoué, which is now under the command of forces loyal to presidential candidate Alassane Ouattara. All sides have denied responsibility for the massacres in Duékoué, which has been rocked by violence since December. At the height of the conflict, up to 50,000 people found refuge in the Catholic mission, which is protected by UN peace-keeping troops.
UNHCR has been unable to work in the west since mid-March due to the dire security situation, but the aid supplies distributed today were trucked to the Catholic mission in Duékoué from the town of Man, where the refugee agency and other aid organizations have functioning offices. Tane Bamba, who oversees UNHCR's operations in western Côte d'Ivoire, attended the distribution. "I can see in the eyes of the IDPs [internally displaced people] that they are relieved to see the humanitarian community back," he said. "Many of them are still scared and traumatized after the massacres and it did not help that they were mostly left on their own for weeks," he added.
Bamba and his team are working with the local authorities to identify empty public buildings to house people now at the crowded Catholic mission, where UNHCR helped register some 27,000 IDPs between Sunday and Tuesday.
Many of the displaced told UNHCR staff that they hoped to see security restored in their areas of origin so that they could return home. But ethnic tensions remain very high in the area. Humanitarian organizations estimate that some 100,000 people are displaced within the west of the country, while a further 135,000 have fled to nearby Liberia. About half are in or around Duékoué.
Although the all-out fighting between pro-Ouattara supporters and those loyal to rival presidential candidate Laurent Gbagbo appears to have ended, many people remain in hiding in the bush. In Zouhan-houyen, the local prefect has called on UNHCR for assistance after gathering some 11,000 people who had fled their homes. A UNHCR team was sent to the area on Wednesday with enough supplies to help 5,000 people. The refugee agency has enough aid in its Man office for almost 20,000 people and hopes to bring in relief items for a further 25,000 people.
"We will have to find those people in the bush and take them to IDP sites where they can get water, food and medical assistance. Some of them don't know that the fighting has stopped," said Bamba.
But although relative peace has come to the west, fighting continues in the commercial capital of Abidjan, where several UNHCR staff remain trapped on Thursday afternoon in their office with some 300 Liberian refugees.