Attacks turn Côte d'Ivoire villages into ghost towns

There are neither hens nor goats in sight, the cooking fires have long been extinguished, houses are padlocked from outside and the village is deserted.

Boho 2, a tiny village in the west of Côte d’Ivoire, is now a ghost town. A little farther on, residents have also emptied out of Dierouzon after the once bustling market town was targetted in several bloody attacks by unidentified armed men.

These two localities are victims of violence that still reigns in the west, though it has died down elsewhere in the country amid a fragile peace and a United Nations plan to hold presidential elections by the end of October.

“We fear attacks, we would rather leave,” said one man in a column of villagers leaving the area, weighed down by plastic sacks and basins on their heads. The group had already tread several kilometres in sweltering July heat, bound for nearby Bangolo town where they hoped to find safety.

Ironically, the violence is hitting inside a buffer zone patrolled by “impartial forces”, UN and French peacekeeping troops deployed after an inconclusive civil war in 2002-2003.

Côte d’Ivoire has been split into a government-controlled south and a rebel held north since a foiled attempt to depose President Laurent Gbagbo in September 2002. The peacekeepers man the divide.

The volatile west is part of a rich, cocoa-producing belt that extends along the south and centre west of Côte d’Ivoire, which remains the world’s top cocoa producer despite the political turmoil, supplying about 41% of the world cocoa market.

The last raid in Boho 2 on June 28 left nine dead, including a baby, and 12 others wounded. Survivors believe the toll would have been much heavier had the French peacekeepers not intervened.

“Very early that morning, I heard shots. I left the house, and fled into the bush,” recalled a woman farmer who, with her granddaughter, had dared to return to recover some belongings from her hut.

“I do not know who attacked, I was scared,” she said.

A French soldier on duty that morning could not elaborate. “Shots were heard, our unit immediately left to check what was happening. They sounded warning shots, but could not catch up with the attackers, who sprinted away,” he said.

The French soldier said such attacks were reported daily, though not all turn out to be true.

In Boho 2, the victims were from the local Guere ethnic group, but in other villages, they are farmers of Burkinabe origin or members of the Baoule tribe from central Côte d’Ivoire.

“There exists in the west of the country a problem related to land ownership, which also runs along ethnic lines,” said a UN humanitarian worker in the area who asked not to be named.

“Added to this, in the buffer zone, is the lack of authority and the fact that the ‘impartial’ forces do not have police powers.

“But the problem these days is that no one is looking to understand what happened, they’re only looking at who the victims are,” the official said.

The trouble spots are about 100km north of Guiglo, the regional epicentre of violent anti-UN protests that left five people dead in January.

About 4 000 French soldiers are assisting 8 500 UN peacekeeping troops, but their mandate is to monitor a ceasefire and to keep rebel and government forces apart. They have no police powers—in an area largely without its own policemen or gendarmes—and must hand over people captured with weapons, or suspected criminals, to Ivorian authorities in the south.

Though conflict has long existed in this cocoa-producing zone, it worsened after a 1990’s economic crisis, then again in late 2002 with the political turmoil.

Unemployment remains high, notably in urban areas, and young people who flocked to cities in search of jobs have returned home to find life in the village no easier.

Their Guere parents, formerly the majority group in the area, have often leased or sold their arable land to developers from other parts of the country or to foreigners, who now find their right to the property challenged. - AFP



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