Monday, March 21, 2011

The High Price of Onions in Abobo

Thursday morning, I called my friend Gnéré in Ivory Coast. She is trapped in Abobo, caught between the soldiers of the former president determined to stay in power at all costs, Laurent Gbagbo, and the so-called invisible commandos that are fighting back. Abobo is a city within a city, a densely-populated suburb of Abidjan, with its own city hall, mayor, and deputy in the National Assembly. Over four hundred people have been killed since Laurent Gbagbo lost the election. Because it is known as a Ouattara stronghold, more of those people have been killed in Abobo than anywhere else. Some two hundred thousand people have fled the area.

But Thursday morning? Just the way Gnéré answered was reassuring. She sounded more like her old self than she had in weeks. The strain and exhaustion was gone from her voice. After days and nights of fear, Abobo was calm. No gun shots. No mortar fire. They had slept all night. And after two weeks when she was afraid to go down into the street, she had gone to the market early that morning and had returned with onions and salt and cayenne pepper for her sauces. “The onions that are normally 100 francs were 200 and the pile that is normally 200 francs cost 400!” But even her outrage about the prices sounded cheerful. What a relief to be outraged about something as ordinary as the price of onions for a change.

I asked her about the bottles of gas she uses for cooking. None to be had in Abobo, she answered. “The trucks can’t get through the barricades. Gbagbo’s soldiers have cut off Abobo completely. You can’t even take the road to Adjamé to go to the market there.” She had a little charcoal left and was using that to cook with, and she still had rice, and for the sauce, peanuts. The peanuts were grown by her family who are farmers in the north; the last time she returned home for a funeral, she brought a burlap bag back with her. The peanuts were turning into a lifesaver now that Abobo was in a state of siege. We laughed about how much better her sauce would taste that night with the onions and salt and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Her husband would be pleased.

Eleven people share her small apartment and all of them had spent the last two weeks cooped up inside. That includes three active little boys who usually play soccer in the dirt streets whenever they aren’t doing homework.

Abobo’s deputy in the assembly ought to speak up about the commune’s problems—how it is cut off and surrounded by soldiers, how a densely-populated neighborhood is no place to wage an urban battle between government troops and “invisible” insurgent commandos whose identities and loyalties are not entirely clear. But the government is not functioning and even if it were, Abobo is represented by Simone Gbagbo, wife of the president-who-refuses-to-leave. Simone has never lived in Abobo. For the past ten years, she has presided over the presidential palace, and she flatly refuses to move out. So the palace’s rightful residents, the newly-elected President of the Ivory Coast, Alassane Ouattara, and his wife live in the Golf Hotel, a multi-story hotel whose landscaped grounds are bordered on one side by a lagoon, and on another, by the American Embassy. They cannot leave. Gbagbo’s soldiers blockade the road.

Obviously, a good night’s sleep and the ordinariness of the trip to the market had done Gnéré good and I hung up relieved. But neither Gnéré nor I were yet aware that the calm interlude was already over. At the market where she bought her onions, the most terrible tragedy yet had just taken place. Gbagbo’s soldiers fired mortar rounds into the marketplace. About thirty-five innocent people were killed. Witnesses say they were mostly women and children and that at least another forty were wounded. The United Nations, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch have all condemned this “blind violence” against civilians. So has the United States government.

When I called back on Saturday, we revisited that conversation. How brief it had been, our interlude of shared outrage at the high price of onions, how pleasantly mundane.

“I was so lucky!” Gnéré said. “Right where I was that morning!”

We appreciated and savored the luck of her good timing and lingered over our thankfulness. But once that was done, our outrage darkened and turned bitter again. How else can you feel about a man, a former democracy activist turned tyrant, who terrorizes innocent civilians to hold onto power?

Cross-posted on Open Salon March 20, 2011. Editors' Pick.

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