While the world watches Libya, the people of Abidjan are fleeing their homes. Their city is a war zone. Forces loyal to Laurent Gbagbo shoot mortar rounds into their neighborhoods.
And it is about to get worse: thousands of young men who support Gbagbo have turned out to enlist in the army. These “Young Patriots” want to join the brutally repressive security forces that keep Gbagbo in power despite the fact that he lost a well-organized election.
For the past four months these young men have listened to nothing but pro-Gbagbo propaganda, an inflammatory plume of self-justifying, anti-northern, anti-French, anti-American, anti-UN, toxic xenophobic exhaust. Young, unemployed, mostly illiterate, and misled by Youth Minister Charles Blé Goudé, they are the raw human energy that can power a civil war.
The propaganda on state television tells them they need to “liberate” Ivory Coast from westerners, the United Nations, rebels and terrorists. How will they identify the rebels and terrorists? They will be northerners with northern last names on their identity cards or immigrants from Burkina Faso, Mali, Ghana, Benin, or other countries. Hundreds of Ouattara’s political activists have already died. They received the fatal knock on the door, the deadly visit in the night.
The friend I call Gnéré for her protection, a young mother and schoolteacher from a village in the north, is trying to get out of Abobo. “The tanks come in day and night now…shooting! The children are frightened. We can’t stay here any longer.”
A bus ticket to Bouaké, on the other side of the line, controlled by the New Forces and peaceful, costs 15,000 FCFA, about $30, and Gnéré needs seven. The banks and Western Union are closed. She has heard that you wait two days at the station for a seat. And Bouaké is only halfway to her village and her family. She can’t make it.
The refugees at her church are leaving for the north today but she can’t afford seven seats in their convoy, so she is going to try to make it to a town near Agboville about fifty miles away, where she can stay with a relative of her husband.
Another friend (let me call him Yacouba) is leaving today, too. He plans to buy gas with every penny he has and try to make it north to Korhogo, where his extended family lives. Marcory, Yacouba’s neighborhood in Abidjan, is considered strongly pro-Gbagbo although the presidential vote was nearly split there: 36,000 for Gbagbo and 33,000 for Ouattara. And split equals volatile.
Several nights ago, someone knocked on Yacouba’s door at one in the morning. When he asked who was there, a man he knew answered. No problem, the man responded, he just wanted to see him. But when Yacouba stepped out, thirty men were waiting. They were Ebrié. The Ebrié live in villages along the lagoons and are considered the original inhabitants of Abidjan. They are fiercely pro-Gbagbo. In Abobo, the Ebrié were accused by Ouattara’s supporters of harboring Gbagbo’s death squads and three Ebrié men had been murdered.
If what happened in Abobo happens here, their spokesman told Yacouba, we will hold you responsible. Whatever happens to any of our community here, the same will happen to you.
“They know my last name,” Yacouba said, his voice trailing off. Both his first and last names mark him as a northern Muslim, although Yacouba has spent his entire life in Abidjan and is Catholic. Four northern neighbors he spoke to had also received the threatening night visits.
“Have you seen the videos on the internet of the young men burned alive?” he asked me. To my negative response, he replied, “They’re horrible.” When he saw the images of crowds of Young Patriots joining the army, he knew it was time to go.
“Why doesn’t the United Nations act?” asks a student in Koumassi, a northerner come south for an education. “The United Nations has every resource. And yet they show up the day after to ask questions.” His suburb Koumassi is relatively calm. “Even if we don’t have much to eat, at least we are not in danger here.” But he worries about his older brother in Abobo.
“Gbagbo…” says their father in the north ruefully. A farmer, his harvest has been good and life is peaceful. But two of his sons are trapped in Abidjan. When the electricity is cut off in Abobo, the older can’t charge his cellphone and they have no way to contact him. “Gbagbo…” Their father’s voice is filled with bewilderment. “If he kills all the people, he will be president of what? The animals?”
Hundreds of people have already been killed and half a million have fled their homes. More are fleeing as you read this. The people of Ivory Coast, especially those in the city of Abidjan, need help fast. The International Crisis Group is urging ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, to intervene. ECOWAS needs international support and they need to act quickly to prevent mass killings. The Young Patriots are lining up for Kalashnikovs. Once they have them, it will be too late.