Fearing war, Ivorians flee to neighbouring Liberia

Dinmin Omin (52) has not forgotten the bombs that fell in Côte d’Ivoire’s civil war, killing his brother and uncle. So when last month’s election went awry, he wasted no time in fleeing to Liberia.

Along with thousands of Ivorians, he crossed the border into Liberia as both former leader Laurent Gbagbo and rival Alassane Outtara staked their claim to the presidency.

“I am in Liberia here because they have announced that Gbagbo has refused to accept the results of elections,” Omin said in the town of Kenlay, 6km from the border with Côte d’Ivoire.

“I know that this is going to provoke another war in my country. I have not forgotten what happened in 2002. Forces of Gbagbo came in Danane [on the Ivorian side of the border] with jet bombers; they dropped bombs on anything that was moving,” he said.

“I lost my uncle and my brother. We had to put their parts together before burial. It was terrible for me.”

Civil strife in both these West African states has seen tens of thousands of refugees move back and forth across the border.

In 2002 a failed putsch against Gbagbo led to an armed rebellion that split Côte d’Ivoire between the rebel-held Muslim north and government-controlled Christian south. Thousands died in the conflict which officially ended in 2005.

Fears of renewed war
Fearing renewed war in the still-divided nation, about 3 700 people have flooded into Liberia since early this month when both Gbagbo and Outtara declared themselves president after last month’s vote, according to the UN refugee agency.

About 150 people are crossing the border a day, the UNHCR says.

“The majority are women with children, their husbands left behind. They urgently need food, clean water, sanitation facilities, clothing and basic hygiene items,” it says.

Before the current crisis, the organisation was assisting 13 000 Ivorian refugees — most of them, about 6 000, in Liberia with other significant groups in Guinea and Mali.

Ethnic and family links mean that almost every citizen in western Côte d’Ivoire has a relative across the border, so refugees are not living in tents but housed in makeshift homes provided by their families.

Immense strain
For Omin and his large family, the strain is immense.

“We are 24 — me, my wife and other relatives. We all sleep in this house that has only two rooms. We received a few cups of beans, few cups of rice, and that’s all. Thank God my parents here have a farm, there is where we go to get some food stocks. But if this continues, they too will face hunger.”

Everyone has their own reasons for fleeing. Gbagbo supporter Seu Modeste said he was being hunted by supporters of Outtara.

“I am from Glanhoue, a town situated 4km from the Liberian borders. Immediately after the results, the rebels came to my house and threatened to beat me. This is the reason why I left,” says Modeste.

Droh Mariette (60) from the Ivorian border town of Liapleu, lost her entire family in the 2002 conflict and fears for her own life in case of renewed fighting.

“My husband was killed, my three children too, when jet bombers from Abidjan struck our town in 2002. The way things are happening, I am afraid that the same war will be renewed.”

Mariette crossed into Liberia with her mother. Her main concern, every day, is how to feed her mom.

Others fear Liberian mercenaries who were also involved in the Côte d’Ivoire conflict and who, the locals say, have been spotted patrolling the border.

Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has delivered a strict warning to ex-fighters to keep out of the Ivorian crisis. – AFP

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