June 09, 2011

Survivors of the violence in western Ivory Coast talk about their experiences and their hopes and fears for the future.



Liberia 2011 © Chris de Bode / Panos Pictures

An Ivorian refugee from Toulepleu in western Ivory Coast, building his home in a host village across the border in Liberia.

IVORY COAST:

1. Boy, 17, village near Pehé, western Ivory Coast. May 2011

At the end of February, my village was attacked. Twenty of us ran to our campement [editor’s note: a campement is a small shelter next to peoples’ fields where they sleep when cultivating or harvesting]. But the attackers came to find us in the bush in the middle of the night. They shot my mother in the chest, then shot and killed my father and my younger brother and sister. Four people, they killed.

Six other people were wounded. One was my aunt, who was shot in the shoulder. We tried to convince her to go to Danané hospital but she refused because she was too afraid. Up to today, she still has not seen a doctor, the wound is infected, and the bullet remains inside her shoulder.

I escaped the campement to another house up on a hill. But the armed men came after me again and set fire to the house. My arm and my leg were burned. I fled the burning house. The men said they would kill me. They hit me on the back of my head with a machete, and cut my arm as well. I lost so much blood.

There were two other campements near my village, and one was my uncle’s. Twenty-six people were killed with machetes in those campements—men, women, children, babies. The attackers dug a hole and buried all these bodies so no one would see them.

From my village, I fled to an campement of my aunt and uncle near Pehé. I was there all alone and didn’t dare to wash for days. Later, who was left in my family came—just eight of us. Fourteen others had been killed.

We are now like refugees in our own country. We keep looking for food everywhere but from the start we couldn’t find anything in the campements. Often the rice had been burned. We eat bananas and drink water from rivers and shallow wells we dig ourselves.

We never have enough to eat. If we eat in the morning, we have nothing at night. The rain falls on our heads through the roof of our shelter. People get sick out in the campements and go without treatment. One woman lost two children to malaria and the third one is now sick in the hospital in Danané.

We stay in the bush because we hope the fighting could not touch us there any more. If there is a food distribution I come to the village. But then I go back to the bush, because there is not peace in our village.

I knew all of those armed men. They were from my village, I even know their names. My village is now full of these people, how can I go back to live there? I think a lot about how all my family is gone. What is left behind is me and my memories.


2. Woman, 21, village near Blolequin, western Ivory Coast. May 2011

Two months ago, we were all in our village when armed men entered. They started to shoot and kill people and burn houses. I fled into the bush with my baby. The attackers ran past me to where my parents were. I could hear my parents screaming and crying. The next day, I went back and found them both dead. Many people were dead and their bodies burned. I ran back to the bush and fled towards Toulepleu. My other young son was with my parents when the attack happened and I haven’t found him since.

I stayed in the bush. We could not go to the village because we have no houses there. We slept under palm roofing and ate raw manioc. Some other people have gone to Liberia but they say there is nothing to eat there. One man came back recently and he says he will go back to call his family to join him here because there is not enough food there.

There are many people out there [in the bush]. And a lot of illness, with people who have stomach problems. We only come out of the bush to go to the clinic. We are too afraid to see dead bodies. Often I think a lot about what happened and my heart starts to pound.

 

3. Man, 72, western Ivory Coast, April 2011

After the election, we asked for help with the hope that we would be spared the violence between the two sides, because that has nothing to do with us. But in March fighters came and now there have been too many people killed.

There were two types of fighters. There was the opposition army in conflict with the loyalist soldiers fighting for power. Then there were the people who were not soldiers, but local militias who had problems and conflict with landowners. This second group seized the moment to kill the landowners or to force them off the land.

On Monday 28 March I was at home, because I am old and retired. Armed people came and took me to the big road. They laid me down on it, doused me with gasoline and set me on fire. They took my right foot and wanted to totally burn it. Somebody grabbed me and took me out of the fire and put me on their back. My foot and my clothes were burnt. That person took me to the hospital on his moped the next day. Why did they pick on me and burn me? I’m innocent.

Then the rest of my family followed me here. There are 25 of us. It was time to go. Our home was destroyed, burnt down. We don’t have anything left. The harvest has gone. Everything has been ransacked. I can’t go back. I don’t have any shelter there. I would have to live in the bush if I went back. I’m totally at the mercy of humanitarian organizations to look after me. Somebody should take care of us while we find a solution and rebuild our homes.

When you arrive in the village, there are so many people who have been displaced by the conflict. What are they going to eat? It’s a matter of urgency. You need to take care of these victims without any more delay so they’re not going to die.

I need to heal my foot. But when I get out of hospital where am I going to go and where am I going to put my family? I’m panicking just thinking about going back to my village. It’s such a shock. The panic still haunts me. I don’t want my identity to be divulged, because they are still here and they are armed to the hilt. I’m just asking for my security and my safety. I don’t really care who is the President, whether it is Paul or Joe, I just want to be in peace.

 

4. Man, 26, Western Ivory Coast. April 2011

I’m not a politician I don’t know anything about politics. But from December, we were not living like before. We were scared.

Normally, we just live among ourselves. When somebody is not from your village, after two or three years, you treat him like your brother. We become friends and then we become brothers. We didn’t know that people still had an old grudge against us so that one day they would attack the village, to kill and massacre everybody, pillage, take all the goods from the houses. Those people to whom we have given forest plots in the village so that they could feed themselves, they came into the village and massacred us with machetes and 12 caliber guns.

People broke into our house armed with rifles, machetes and hoes. They took me outside and told me to sit down. I was really scared and thought, this is it, I’m dead. They shot me in the shoulder. I lied down, pretending to be dead. One of them struck my head with his foot and when he saw I was still breathing, he pointed his gun at the back of my head and told me to get up. But there were no bullets left in his rifle. So, he took a machete and struck me on the throat. I was breathless and he struck me on my head. He wounded me badly. Then he took his machete and struck me again on the back of my head. He thought I was dead. I lost so much blood that day.

In the next house we saw a little girl of five shot dead. Shot in the neck, she died instantly. They took a bucket of water to wash the little girl’s blood off themselves. Then they took our belongings, and took my wife, on the back of their motorbikes.

I couldn’t see anything, everything was black, I’d lost too much blood. I walked a bit, crossed the road into the bush. If I’m alive today, it’s thanks to a young villager who saw me lying down and bleeding in the bush. He helped bring me to a safer place deep in the bush. My wife came back later that day. Three days after that we made it here to Bangolo hospital. Without MSF, this hospital would be filled with dead bodies. There are people with bullet shots in the chest. When I first arrived, my arm stunk and it was almost rotten. Thanks to Martial, [an MSF surgeon], he cleaned my arm nicely and now it’s getting a lot better.

There are loads of people I know who have been killed. How many are going to be left? It’s heartbreaking. When I’m told how many people have been killed in my village, I find it impossible to absorb and when I talk about it, it hurts. It goes straight to my heart and makes me cry. I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to go back to the village. If we go back there I will see strange things and I will feel tormented. There will be places where they killed people. And when somebody has been killed somewhere, no matter how much rain falls down, the blood of that person stays where it is, as if you had just poured gasoline.

I know they have burnt my house down and they ransacked the whole thing and stole everything including my mattress, my I.D., all my clothes, rolled my t-shirts in the mud, stole my new clothes. To get back together with these people again will be hard. We live in doubt and in fear.

 

5. Woman, 25, village near Pehé, western Ivory Coast. May 2011

Up until three weeks ago, we were all still living in the bush. Many of the houses in my village were burned. Now that we are back, we live in the houses that are still abandoned. Everything was taken. Many people are sick. But the health centre nearby has not functioned since the events of 2002.

A few months ago, we left our village when Toulepleu was attacked in the morning. In the course of the evening afterwards, they started to attack all the villages. Some people fled to Liberia—and we have not heard from them since then. Others, like us, fled to the bush. Where I was in the bush, 26 people were living together. We soon ran out of rice and it became hard to find any manioc left in the fields to eat.

When we were in the bush, one old man was shot in the hand by armed men when out looking for food for us. He went weeks without care. The wound became infected and now that he’s gone to the hospital, he lost his hand.

People are still afraid to leave the bush because of what happened here. Even though the military goes into the bush to call us back, saying the war is over, we are afraid it is not really over.

 

6. Older man, Pehé, western Ivory Coast. May 2011

Half of this village still lives in the bush. Sometimes they live very far away, up to 30 kilometers into the bush. You cannot sleep next to the village because there are corpses and bones of people there at the entrance to the forest where people were killed.

When people want to go to the hospital, many of them will come together to an abandoned house, sleep there overnight then come to the health center. Many people from other villages have come to Pehé and the bush around here, because there are more people here.

But in the villages these people left behind them, there are others who are all living in the bush around the villages. People have seen their houses burnt so they feel they cannot return. Only a few people are cutting wood and hoping to rebuild.

 

NIMBA COUNTY, LIBERIA:


1. Man who fled from Toulepleu, in western Ivory Coast, and is now seeking refuge in Nimba County, Liberia. May 2011

When they attacked Toulepleu, we all ran away together to a campement near my mother’s house. We were not there long when fighters came and started to shoot at us. We ran and hid again.

We stayed for two months in the bush, moving from place to place whenever we heard fighters moving. We were attacked many times. In one attack, several children were shot. They killed my mother and father and burned their bodies right in front of my wife. Then they took her away with them.

In the bush, there was no medicine, so we had to treat the children with traditional medicine for their gunshot wounds. Only weeks later did we make it to Liberia, where MSF took them to the hospital.

My wife was gone for almost two months and we found each other again here in Liberia. While she was kidnapped, the fighters raped her. She is still very anxious and disturbed and doesn’t eat well. She says her heart is pounding. At night she jumps up, remembering what happened to her, or how my parents were burned in front of her.

My boss asked me if I would come back to Toulepleu, but I said no. It is not safe. They have burned the houses and you cannot go out to your fields. It is too dangerous to return.


2. Man, 40, who fled from Toulepleu and is sheltered now at the New Yourpea transit camp in Liberia’s Nimba County. May 2011

This year, the war made us flee. As always, it started with rumors. We thought, like in 2002, it will all be over in a few weeks. But in early March fighters entered the town and it was the civilians who paid the price. People were burned alive in their houses, especially those like children and the elderly who could not flee fast enough.

The fighters were targeting the people they felt had supported the other side—shooting at them as they fled. I fled in one direction with my older son. My wife and my other children went the other way. I haven’t seen them since.

We stayed in the bush for one month, together with about 70 people in a hiding place that we had cleared out. There was barely any food and water. We had no way of treating children if they were sick. To find food, women would go out into the bush to try to find manioc still left in the fields.

But armed men came after us as we fled and we were obliged to cross over into Liberia. It wasn’t possible to travel on the roads. There were checkpoints, especially at the border, where they ask you for money. Even if you gave them money, sometimes they still shot the people. So, we travelled at night, exposed to many dangers—snakes, scorpions, fighters.

We arrived in Liberia in early April. We were a long line of people marching to come out of the bush together. But my son drowned as we crossed the river to Liberia. When we arrived in Liberia, the first thing I had to do was bury him. The people here welcomed me and consoled me, saying they understood because they had been refugees themselves. God gave my son to me and God took him away, but still I lost my oldest, grown son.

I decided to go to the refugee camp away from the border because of security. I prefer to be at a distance from the border because it is too risky. They say there are Liberian combatants that cross the border, back and forth.

We need safety and health care. Also, food will not last forever here if everyone is sharing the little there is. In secret, many people cross the border to look for food—reserves of rice or manioc still left in the fields in Ivory Coast — and this is how they survive.

I will not return to Cote D’Ivoire before there is disarmament and stability. This is not the Cote D’Ivoire that I know from before. The news will come at some point “come back to Cote D’Ivoire, it’s stable.” They will say this but why should I return? As long as there are fighters with machetes in their hands, it will never be easy.


3. Elderly woman from Toulepleu seeking refuge in Teahplay, Nimba County, Liberia. May 2011

Rumors were saying that people would come and kill all the people who voted for one side or the other. But the authorities told us that these things would not happen in our village, that we should stay. Then one night in December armed men came and started shooting at all of us. Everyone scattered in every direction. There was no time to take anything. We had absolutely nothing.

Coming here from Ivory Coast was not easy. We passed so many checkpoints. The people would stop us and ask who we are, where we come from, where we were going. If I tell you all the things that happened to us at all these checkpoints, I will break down in tears.

I could offer my friend here nothing, but she gave me food to eat and a place to stay. Soon the food started to run out, so the children go to the bush to search for food there, like yams. But the more people come to live here, the less we find to eat. Since we are here no one has gone back to our village. It is not safe there, they will kill you if you go out to your fields. I see no way to ever return.

 

4. Older man who fled from a village near Bin-Houyé, in western Ivory Coast, to Bahn refugee camp, Nimba County, Liberia. May 2011

We went and voted and they told us to go home to our villages and wait for the results. In February, I started to hear shelling and people shouting from the direction of Danané. There was nothing we could do except flee, in all directions. I ran with part of my family to our campement in the bush so we could still be near the village.

Nothing was normal. It was so hard. We ate bananas and any other things we could find. We didn’t know what to do for the children. When night came, the older children would guard them. The adults could never really sleep. Even now, many people are still out there hiding in the bush.

Then more armed men came and burnt the houses in our village. We could see the smoke rising. We had to find a way to cross into Liberia. Some of us swam over with the help of fishermen.

People took our names and put them on a list, promising us food. We received nothing. Once, there was a food distribution in the neighboring village, so I went to ask for help, but we didn’t receive any food. People lent us tools so we could work in the fields, but with no food, we barely had energy to work.

My son and daughter were both in Daloa. They tried to flee to here. At Danané they were robbed by soldiers. They arrived here with nothing. They took a long way here as they could not travel through Toulepleu because of a checkpoint where armed men ask you who you voted for. No matter what you say, they check your identity card and decide who you voted for based on where it says you came from. Some people have disappeared at this checkpoint and never re-appeared. I am still missing members of my family.

I came here to Bahn because there are services here, like health care, that are not in the villages near the border. It all depends on where you feel most at ease. Some people want to stay back in the border villages to watch fields they just planted in Liberia. Some also cross over and back into Ivory Coast to see their houses, to see if they can recover any of their belongings, to see if it's safe.

Since the shooting stopped, peoples’ families there are calling them, saying there’s a president in place and they need to come to their house. I cannot understand what is happening in Ivory Coast. Some go back, but not me. Everything I had was burned, what should I do over there?

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