Late in 1999 — I can't remember the exact month or day — my wife and I got one of those middle-of-the-night phone calls. "There's been a coup. They're fighting in the streets. Papi has gone into hiding." This was my first experience with what war could mean for my wife's parents and our extended family in Côte d'Ivoire.
Worse still was the uncertainty and inconsistent communication. Phone lines and electricity went down all the time. Cellular service was not what it is today, and the Internet was something that only the very rich had access to. Over the past 11 years, we've learned to live with an unstable political situation and to brace ourselves whenever the phone rings.
Now it's Christmas, and here in the States, we once again wait for the phone to ring, and once again we worry, all because of an election. Two men, Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara, both claim to have been elected president last month. Both have been sworn in. As a result, there has been violent rhetoric — and violence. People have been killed (accounts of the actual numbers vary), and there is talk about those who have been disappeared. (Numbers for those vary, too.)
This isn't the Côte d'Ivoire I've grown to love.
We were married in Abidjan, my wife and I, and held our wedding reception at the Golf Hotel, the same hotel currently serving as headquarters for Ouattara, the election challenger. I had played the course the day before with my best friend, who was on his first journey to the continent. We marveled at the beauty of the country and its people. As Americans, we were treated better than we probably deserved, especially since neither of us spoke French.
It rained the morning of the wedding but quickly cleared, and the day turned out to be fabulous. More than 300 guests, of whom I personally knew fewer than 50, attended our wedding. It remains one of the best days of my life.
Today we have a child who was born in Abidjan, and numerous relatives and friends who live there. While I still love "the CI," I'm worried, and concerned for family and friends. I feel for my wife, who frequently talks to her mother and siblings. I see the fear in her eyes, and hear it when she speaks.
We don't understand how this small West African country could be such a mess. We don't understand how the international community could insert itself in the middle of a disputed election and clearly try to influence the outcome. We fear that their actions will lead to violence at best, and genocide at worst.
I'm disappointed at the international community's reaction to the election. Its rush to judgment and willingness to declare a winner prematurely has put a nation at risk. It has put people I love at risk. But in the end, who cares about an election when people start killing one another?
As I write this, the streets are calm over there, but people are tense. Chances are better than average that by the time the holiday season is over, the tension will have given way to a budding civil war. I worry about what I can do to help prevent this. Probably not much, but in the Internet age, I can at least try.
So I read everything I can find. I post what I consider to be fair and objective views on my Facebook page. I've even begun tweeting — even as I wonder whether anyone would follow me and my musings about what is happening in my wife's home country. I stay in contact with family and a newfound Internet friend who's living there now. I talk to anyone who will listen about what's going on. And I pray for safety, for cooler heads to prevail and for leaders to lead instead of using the people as pawns in their game. I also pray that the late-night phone call we always dread doesn't come.
I try to convince myself that something good may come of this. Perhaps the aftermath will be good for the people in some way that has yet to reveal itself. I wonder if I will ever get to play that golf course again. Will we recognize Abidjan when and if we visit again? I'm grateful that my wife and daughter were able to go home last summer. I feel bad for my nephew, who moved in with us to go to college in the States. If he goes back home, he may not have the same options that my wife had when she first started out.
But most of all I feel a need, an obligation, to do something. I've sent e-mails to national media — and for the first time in my life, I sent one to the White House. I hope that the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass will slow this down, save lives. But I just can't see an outcome that doesn't involve bloodshed. For the sake of those I care about, I hope I'm wrong.
Roger Stewart is a sales and marketing consultant who lives in Los Angeles. His wife and daughter were born in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire. Follow him on Twitter.