By Edward Bally
DUÉKOUÉ, Côte d’Ivoire, 9 May 2011 – More than half a million people were forced to flee their homes during post-election violence in Côte d’Ivoire, which began late last year. Houses burned to the ground and villages were destroyed.
People ran in fear of their lives, seeking shelter where they could. After nearly four months – and with the worst hopefully over – many displaced people are considering a return.
But starting afresh is a daunting task. For example, many residents from villages near the western town of Duékoué in Côte d’Ivoire spent days hiding in the surrounding forest before they reached the Catholic mission in the area.
Beatrice Maho lives in a tent in the mission’s camp. She arrived here after her village was rampaged and her husband killed in front of her. Now alone with nine children, she is struggling to cope. “I don’t know what to do,” she says, amid tears. “I lost everything. I’d like someone to help me give my children the means to forget what happened and move on with their lives.”
About 28,000 people are still living in Duékoué’s Catholic mission, which was transformed into a refugee camp soon after the crisis began. The camp is now overcrowded. Most of the people living here are scared of returning to their villages. Others no longer have a house to go back to.
Living under tents
Ms. Maho, along with others traumatized by the violence, receives psychological support from UNICEF partner Association de Soutien à l'Autopromotion Sanitaire et Urbaine (ASAPSU), a non-governmental organization that promotes urban health, which is also responsible for running the camp.
“We cannot force anyone to leave, and we absolutely don’t want to,” says Evariste Kouame Kouadio, ASAPSU emergency programme coordinator. “The departures here are on a voluntary basis. We don’t want to let people go out into an unsafe environment.”
In the Duékoué camp, UNICEF and partners are working to meet the immediate needs of the displaced. “The conditions are precarious. We’re trying our best to make the refugees comfortable,” says Mr. Kouadio.
There are 2,500 children under the age of five in the camp. To help particularly vulnerable children, UNICEF’s partner Action Contre la Faim International (ACF) brings children a portion of nutritional porridge every morning to ensure they have at least one meal per day. “The rest is the responsibility of the parents, to whom we talk a lot,” says Jean Herman Boue, canteen supervisor for ACF. “We know it’s not enough for them, but with the current situation it’s very hard to find food here.”
The other priority for UNICEF and partners is to avoid major outbreaks of diarrheal diseases such as cholera. Camps are particularly sensitive places to the spread of disease. UNICEF is supporting ACF and the Catholic mission camp to provide safe water.
In the town of Danane, where UNICEF and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have established a camp for displaced people, the partners are helping maintain high hygiene standards by building 50 latrines, and providing safe water in the form of two 5,000 litre water tanks.
People in these two camps are luckier than many others. The majority of people who fled the conflict did not gather in camps, but remained hiding out in the forests or in remote villages.
Reaching remote areas
As a result, ACF and UNICEF have extended their coverage to reach the most remote places. In Ligaleu, a rural village located in the middle of a forest very close to the Liberian border, people have recently returned to find their homes looted.
To help these families, ACF is bringing hygiene kits right to their doorstep. They are badly needed. “There was a sanitation and hygiene issue prior to the political crisis here, but with the increase of population, those problems have seriously increased,” says Odilon Hounmavo, ACF distribution supervisor. He adds that the emphasis in the short-term is on supplying safe water until his team can return to mend water pumps and install new ones at a later date.
For thousands of people who were displaced by the violence, it is a first step in being able to return to their villages and homes for good.