Letter From Côte d'Ivoire: Living on the Cusp of Civil War

Two men claim to have won the presidential election; two presidents were sworn in. Both sides are ratcheting up the violent rhetoric. At least nine people were killed; many more injured. Amid talk of death squads, Ivorians fear the worst.

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ABIDJAN, CÔTE D'IVOIRE -- The local newspapers today are filled with exceedingly violent propaganda. Life in this West African country has been exceedingly tense ever since the Nov. 28 election, which resulted in the swearing-in of two presidents. Newspapers supporting Alassane Ouattara, one of the potential presidents in the contested election, are claiming that Laurent Gbagbo, the other presidential contender, has called in his Liberian and Angolan "war dogs" to slaughter people in the streets. The pro-Gbagbo side has apparently tried to shut down the opposition papers.

Frankly, it's exceedingly hard to tell what's really going on at the moment. The streets are mostly empty in my district today. Perhaps the rumors of a transportation strike by the Jula ethnic group, which runs much of the commerce and is mostly pro-Ouattara, are true. It's hard to say. What is certain: I've seen no gbakas (mini buses), taxis or buses passing by today.

Yesterday afternoon, at one of the few factories left open in Abidjan, workers were tense and asked to go home right after rumors started circulating at lunch. Many of the rumors had to do with the body count left after the day's violence. Some people say that at least nine were dead. Others claim as many as 30 were killed, with dozens upon dozens injured. The workers here had faced the makeshift roadblocks on their way to the factory, where crowds were quickly dispersed with gunshots fired in the air. Despite the danger, they came into work so that they could collect their pay.

It's money that's badly needed. Many in the area have been laid off in the last month, joining the nearly 50 percent of the country who were already unemployed. The prices of food staples have at least doubled in the past few weeks since the election crisis; people are rationing what food they had managed to stock at home. Many don't have savings to last them through the crisis. The Ivorian people are stuck in a situation that only worsens with each move made by national and international players. Their voices are all but forgotten.

Many fear a return to civil war, prompting around 150 refugees to flee the country daily, mostly to neighboring Liberia. Unconfirmed stories of government death squads, a throwback to tactics used in the earlier civil war, suggest that people are being snatched and possibly murdered at night again, though I've only heard of this through international media reports. Locally, talks of this are quiet.

Earlier in the week, the tensions between the two presidential camps began to rapidly escalate. The camp of the opposition and international community was accused of trying to woo the Ivorian military and police forces to their side with the help of Ouattara's former employer, the International Monetary Fund, which talked of freezing all Ivorian assets. The hope is that the pay freeze will inspire the police, military and civil servants who are publicly loyal to Gbagbo to join forces with Ouattara. Gbagbo's camp was quick to assure them that their pay would be received on Dec. 22, as scheduled.

In response, Army General Philippe Mangou, who is aligned with Gbagbo, warned the U.N. and French Licorne forces not to make war with the Ivorians, reminding them of the events of 2004 that resulted in the deaths of nine French soldiers and the evacuation of thousands of French citizens from the country. Gbagbo's youth minister, the notorious Charles Ble Goude, called on people to "sit still in (their) neighborhoods. Stay away from any activities of violence, stay away from provocations and wait," and then spoke about France and the U.N.'s preparations for genocide in Côte d'Ivoire.

Wednesday, the day before Ouattara's planned march on the city, people were in full-on worry mode, fearing slaughter in the streets. Several people were injured in the capital, Yamoussoukro, after security forces prevented them from marching. Military officials warned that if there was violence, there would be repercussions, and International Criminal Court prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo warned all parties that anyone planning or committing attacks would be prosecuted for those actions.

Thousands are said to have attempted to take to the streets early Thursday morning, but many were caught in the roadblocks and sent back home. Some 300 to 400 demonstrators in an Abidjan district, Abobo, were dispersed with tear gas by government forces, and stone-throwing protesters in other Abidjan districts, Adjame and Yopougon, found police roadblocks blocking their way and were quickly dispersed by shots to the air.

By late morning, an exchange of fire was heard near the Golf Hotel, where protesters were preceded by FN rebel forces carrying assault rifles and grenade launchers. An apparently unintentional rocket-propelled grenade was launched into the U.S. Embassy. At around 2 p.m., at least five were reported dead, but Ouattara's camp kept calling on Ivorians to "continue mobilizing." Gbagbo's troops soon took control of the city's main bridges and streets, and most areas returned to a tense calm again as the night curfew brought people back to their homes.  

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