Like father, like son, say Togolese

For years, Foli Nyassia watched as his neighbours were beaten, arrested and snatched away in the night by soldiers under Togo’s late dictator.

A newly elected president—and son of the late dictator—professes to have embraced democracy and vows to unite his divided country. But Nyassia says little has changed in his opposition-dominated neighborhood of Be, located in eastern Lomé.

There, the disputed end-of-April presidential victory of Faure Gnassingbe, who took the oath of office on Wednesday, was followed by days of clashes, more deadly visits by soldiers, and the flight of thousands of terrified residents across

the borders to neighbouring Ghana and Benin.

Only last week, the dusty streets of Be were filled with young machete-wielding youth burning barricades and firing stones with slingshots at soldiers, who answered with volleys of tear gas and stun grenades. Now only an eerie silence remains, with most of the streets empty except for mounds of rotting garbage, dilapidated shacks and burnt husks of cars destroyed in the rioting.

The raids and harassment forced many of Be’s residents to flee the country on Thursday, when the government opened its borders.
Over 20 000 refugees have crossed into Benin and Ghana, United Nations officials say.

The worst of the violence appears over, but residents of opposition neighbourhoods and refugees who have left in recent days still report sporadic raids.

The government has repeatedly denied targeting innocent civilians in opposition neighbourhoods. Officials could not immediately be reached for comment for this article.

For all his talk of reform, Gnassingbe was a member of his father’s Cabinet and has never clearly denounced Togo’s brutal past. Even if he were a democrat at heart, it is not clear to what extent he can control the military.

Last week, Nyssia said he watched soldiers force a man, who was crippled by polio, out of a nearby church to dismantle barricades that had been built by demonstrators. As the man struggled to walk, said Nyassia, the soldiers shot him in the stomach, then dragged him to join the work gang of other terrified residents.

“After every election the soldiers come looking for militants,” said Nyssia, who sent his wife and children to Ghana on Thursday.

“But always, it’s only us who suffer.”

After past elections in 1993, 1998 and 2003, the government under the late dictator Gnassingbe Eyadema routinely sent soldiers into opposition neighbourhoods like Be, Nyekonakpoe and Adamavo to crush demonstrations.

Raids would continue after the votes, as troops came looking for opposition leaders who were suspected of hiding in resident’s homes.

Worse, residents say, the government has punished them by shutting down electricity, water, and stopping garbage collection.

Emmanuel Akakpo (50) lives near a giant rubbish dump in central Be, where groups of children and white seabirds dance around the foetid heap.

Akakpo said his neighbours are always sick from the garbage, and babies die regularly of malaria and cholera.

“The government wants to turn Be into a desert,” said Akakpo, a taxi driver.

“We’re constantly breathing chemicals, and the odour here is awful.”

In Nyekonakpoe, residents doubt Gnassingbe will be any different from his father, despite promises of uniting the political parties and finding work for Togo’s thousands of restless youth.

“Faure’s father never gave me anything to eat, and neither will he,” said one man in Nyekonakpoe, who only gave his first name, Amidou.

“We all want the same things, but we only get the same problems.”

He said many of his friends had already fled to Ghana. As he spoke, a military truck piled with soldiers rolled down the empty street.

But even for those who escaped to Ghana, nightmares will remain.

Kokou Ablevi was at home with his family when masked soldiers rolled down his street last Friday. Like normal, Ablevi squeezed everyone under a tiny bed in the back room and waited for them to pass.Instead, heavy boots kicked down Ablevi’s door, gunfire thundered through the room and Ablevi’s sister-in-law was killed,

shot through the heart.

Ablevi fled the next day to Ghana. United Nations officials took him and his family to a small refugee camp in Mastrikasa, located 30km from the border.

As rain pelted the tin roof of an abandoned tool shed where 106 refugees now temporarily live, tears rolled down Ablevi’s cheeks on Wednesday as he remembered that night.

“We left her body under the bed,” he said. “There’s nothing I can do about it now.” - Sapa-AP