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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Friday 6 May 2005

COTE D IVOIRE: Ethnic fighting leaves 10,000 sleeping out, afraid to go home

DUEKOUE, 6 May 2005 (IRIN) - Few of the 10,000 people who fled ethnic violence in this western Cote d'Ivoire town are thinking about going home, with thousands choosing to sleep out in the grounds of a local church even though they are packed together like sardines and there is little to eat.

The trouble in Duekoue erupted last week, when the Guere people in the town refused to join a strike to protest security problems that had been organised by the Dioula ethnic group.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said at least 15 people had died in the fighting that ensued, most from machete wounds, and that 8,000 to 10,000 people had been displaced.

More than 7,000 of those that fled their homes are crammed together in bleak conditions in the grounds of Duekoue's Catholic mission.

”We can’t cope with all these people,” priest Juan Ruiz told IRIN. "When it rains there just isn’t enough room for everyone.”

He said that the church's electric water pump kept breaking down and hygiene was a worrying problem, given the crowded conditions.

The cocoa-growing "Wild West" has a history of tit-for-tat killings between immigrant farmers and indigenous landowners, locked in conflict over the right to cultivate the region’s fertile cocoa plantations.

But Cote d’Ivoire’s almost three-year-old civil war, which has left the country split into a rebel-held north and government-controlled south, has exacerbated the tensions, with many landowners using the conflict as a pretext to chase immigrants off their lands.

While much-trumpeted breakthroughs have been achieved in the peace process in recent weeks, few of the displaced people in Duekoue seem to think this will make much difference to their own lives any time soon.

“I’m staying here,” said Colette Zeba, a 50-year-old who sells bananas on the street and is staying at the church. “There may be nothing to eat but at least we’re safe. If we go home the whole family will be exterminated.”

Zeba, who is a member of the Guere people, told IRIN how she discovered she was a widow two days ago when her husband’s body was found lying dead on a road nearby.

The couple, along with their seven children and her four sisters, had hotfooted it out of their home in a Guere area in the dead of night last weekend when they heard shouts and cries next door. The husband fled one way, the rest of the family headed for the mission grounds.

Duekoue, which lies near the border with Liberia, is home to the Guere and Dioula ethnic groups. The Guere are generally animist or Christian and see themselves as the original residents of the region, while the Dioula are Muslims who trace their origins back to northern Cote d'Ivoire and beyond.

Problems started last Friday when the Guere did not heed a strike call by Dioula truck-drivers and traders to protest against the growing insecurity on roads in the lawless western region, where mercenaries and weapons are said to transit back and forth across the porous borders. The situation rapidly deteriorated.

“There is a real problem of mistrust between the communities," said the Catholic mission's Ruiz. “Many of these people no longer have homes, and others are still at home but too scared to go out."

But Duekoue's mayor, Victor Tiehi Kpai, said the town's problems went beyond that.

“This isn’t just a conflict between communities,” the mayor, who is a supporter of President Laurent Gbagbo’s ruling Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), told IRIN. “This is part of the war, many of the armed assailants came from the north."

“The only way these problems will be resolved will be when the whole of the confidence zone is disarmed,” he added.

Duekoue lies less than 50 km south of the UN-patrolled confidence zone that cuts a swathe across Cote d’Ivoire.

Army chiefs from the government forces and the New Forces rebel movement that control the north are currently holding talks in the capital Yamossoukro about starting disarmament on 14 May.

Under peace efforts led by international mediator and South African President Thabo Mbeki, the country also is to hold elections next October.

But in the west, people fear that militias using hired guns from across the border could torpedo the peace process.

“Some people say militia commander Colombo has gone to fetch Liberians,” said young immigrant mechanic Abdoulaye Soumahoro. “A lot of the young people are ready to fight off assailants.”

For young people on the Guere side the talk is exactly the same.

“People are telling us through microphones we can go home now,” said Serge Pacome Guiriekpa, who belongs to a Guere group called ‘The Family’. “But we know the Dioulas will attack and we’re staying here to defend the property of our families who have all fled.”

Fear pervades the town. At the Catholic mission Sister Bernadette said that many people went home in the day but slept there at night.

"The town is calm, apparently, but they are still afraid. I don't know exactly what they are afraid of, I think they are scared of being attacked. The rumor mill never stops, you know," she said. "They come and go. Some of them are from surrounding villages, but most of them are from Duekoue, from the neighbourhoods 'Guere' and 'Belleville'.

The UN Mission in Cote d’Ivoire (ONUCI) this week organised a reconciliation meeting of traditional leaders from Duekoue's different ethnic groups and pledged more patrols to help keep the peace.

“These incidents have caused a lot of worry at the United Nations because we thought with the (latest) peace deal, we were on the way to peace,” UN special envoy Alan Doss told residents of Duekoue on Thursday.

[ENDS]

This material comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Quotations or extracts should include attribution to the original sources. All materials copyright © UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2005



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