Monday, March 14, 2011

Dark Nights in Abobo

On a Sunday afternoon in late October, a week before the first round of the presidential election in Ivory Coast, I strolled the streets of Abobo with a young woman I will call Gnéré. She is a schoolteacher and the mother of four young children. I have known her since she was a schoolgirl herself in a village in the north. Abobo, where she lives now, is a densely populated neighborhood of Abidjan.

There was only one topic of conversation that day—the election. In a school classroom, voters crowded onto wooden benches and listened intently as campaign workers demonstrated how to mark the ballot by touching your finger to an inkpad. Nearby, a large crowd attended a rally for opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara. “We have nothing!” cried the young speaker. “It’s time for change!”

I felt the current of hope and determination running through Abobo that Sunday. And naïvely American, I had every confidence that Ivorians would succeed in putting their divided country back together peacefully at the ballot box. Gnéré, who lived through the violent 2000 election, was more realistic. She said she would prefer to vote early and spend Election Day at home with the children, just in case of trouble. But the country needed 60,000 literate poll workers, so she had agreed to work.

“The United Nations is here,” I reassured her.

“I hope they come to Abobo,” she answered with a determined smile.

I tried to picture peacekeepers in the maze of unpaved roads where we were. No street names, no house numbers. When I visit Gnéré, she meets me at the paved road so I don’t get lost.

By the time the run-off between incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and challenger Alassane Ouattara was held on November 28, I had returned home. When I called election night, Gnéré said that in Abobo, people voted and then went straight home. But there were no problems at the polling place where she worked. The voting and the vote count had gone smoothly.

Over eighty percent of Ivorian voters turned out. No one was surprised when Ouattara won Abobo with 59% of the vote to Gbagbo’s 41%. Nationwide, Ouattara received 54% of the vote to win the election. For one day, Ouattara’s activists in Abobo danced in the streets.

But Gbagbo refused to concede. His allies on the nation’s highest court overturned the results and proclaimed Gbagbo the winner. On the phone, Gnéré said that as soon as they heard the news, they ran straight home. They feared violence from Gbagbo’s street militias, the so-called Young Patriots.

“But the world is with you,” I replied. “The international community recognizes Ouattara. The president of South Africa is coming.”

“No president can convince Gbagbo to step down,” said Gnéré’s husband. “We who live here understand this.”

A few days later, the terrifying night visits began. Under cover of the curfew, hooded armed men in unmarked SUVs drove into Abobo and knocked on doors. Not just any doors--those of opposition activists.

“It’s very dangerous here,” whispered Gnéré into the phone. “We don’t sleep. We think people are getting killed.”

Some nights the hooded armed men robbed their neighbors of all their possessions. Another dark night, with the electricity out, a soldier knocked on a door disguised in a long boubou. When the family opened up to what they thought was a neighbor, the soldiers entered. The sound of shots rang out. The night terror continued. The United Nations estimates close to four hundred people have been killed. Many more have been beaten or have disappeared. Most are young activists for Ouattara.

Saturday night February 26, heavy arms fire kept Gnéré and her neighbors awake most of the night. Their neighborhood was under attack by Gbagbo’s security forces. “This time they sent tanks. Tanks! It sounds like they are right outside the door,” she said on the phone, “although they are on the paved road. The noise alone could give you a heart attack.” The children were terrified, but leaving was dangerous. Pro-Gbagbo militias were said to be on the lookout for strangers arriving in their neighborhoods and a northern last name like hers put you at risk.

About forty people took refuge in the courtyard of Gnéré’s church. When the streets are calm, she takes them food. But she is on her last bottle of cooking gas. She has a little charcoal and will cook with that as long as it lasts. Food prices have doubled and everyone makes do by eating less.

As we talked, I could hear someone crying. It was Gnéré’s younger sister, who left their village and came south to get an education. A week ago, going to middle school, she was caught in the firing and had to run for her life. She hasn’t been to school since.

On est la-dé,” Gnéré said bleakly. “We are here-dé.” The adds emphasis. “No one will come to help us. We are in God’s hands.”

On Thursday, March 3, about nine in the morning, hundreds of women were desperate enough to go into the streets of Abobo to demand Gbagbo’s departure. Gnéré dressed to join the demonstration, but her husband asked her not to go, so she stayed inside. When the women reached the paved road singing and waving leafy branches, Gbagbo’s security forces shot directly into the crowd. Seven women were killed and many more were wounded.

Gnéré says the wail of shock and grief that went up in the neighborhood was awful to hear. “Why,” she asks, “didn’t the United Nations protect them?”

The country is on the verge of civil war. The United Nations says 200,000 people have fled Abobo. But on Gnéré’s street only one family has left. The rest have no place to go.

Posted at Open Salon. Editor's Pick March 14, 2011.

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