Published May 22, 2012
Two hundred miles north of San Pedro lies Duékoué, a town of some 50,000 inhabitants that saw some of the worst fighting of the war. Duékoué is just south of the line that divided Ivory Coast’s government-controlled south from the rebel-held north during the conflict. The town is located in a very fertile zone—the whole area was once covered in dense forest—and cocoa plantations fan out from the city in all directions. (Rubber is being cultivated here as well, though not as extensively as in San Pedro. The cocoa plantations in the Duékoué area are newer than those further south, and so people have not begun replacing old cocoa fields with rubber in large quantities—not yet, anyway.)
One of Ivory Coast’s bloodiest slaughters occurred here at the end of the conflict, in late March of 2011, as troops loyal to newly elected president Alassane Ouattara began their sweep down from the north on their way to forcing incumbent Laurent Gbagbo from office. The rebels, which Ouattara was now calling the Republican Forces, had plenty of allies in Duékoué. Probably half of the city’s population was comprised of “foreigners” (anyone not indigenous to the area), and the vast majority of them were aligned with Ouattara. When the troops moved through town they were welcomed gleefully by that part of the population, a people who had long complained of discrimination and violence suffered at the hands of the locals.
What happened next is still hotly debated by the different ethnic groups in the Duékoué area. Those not indigenous to the area claim that their communities were attacked first, and they blame the well-armed local civilian militias that were loyal to Gbagbo, saying they teamed up with mercenaries from Liberia. The locals contend they had nothing to do with those attacks, but blame the foreigners for cooperating with the rebel troops and dozos (mystical hunters from northern Ivory Coast) in targeting civilians loyal to Gbagbo.
What is undisputed is that all over the Duékoué area communities from both sides suffered brutal attacks. Countless homes stand roofless, their walls blackened by fire or lying in a heap of rubble. Some villages resemble ghost towns, their inhabitants having fled and refused to come back. I spoke to numerous people who told stories of family members being shot or knifed to death right before their eyes. One young man said he was shot in the arm after running away from a soldier who had just sliced open his sister’s pregnant belly and left her on the ground to die. An elderly woman told me her daughter was killed by a stray bullet as they ran together to flee a gun battle. The old woman had to pull her three-month-old grandchild from her dead daughter’s arms before continuing her frantic search for safety.
Carrefour, a neighborhood on the eastern edge of Duékoué, was one of the hardest hit by the violence. International aid workers who were on the scene in the days immediately following the fighting reported that corpses littered Carrefour’s streets. The Red Cross estimated that 800 people or more were killed, their bodies dumped into at least three mass graves in the neighborhood.
We were invited to a peace and reconciliation festival that took place on a dirt soccer pitch right next to one of the mass graves in Carrefour. We arrived for the event in the late morning (it was scheduled to start, we’d been told, by 10 a.m.), and we were given a tour of three courtyards where women from different ethnic groups had been organized to work together to prepare meals for the ceremony.
“You see, we don’t have any problem with each other,” one of the women told me. She explained that they were preparing a variety of dishes, to be sure that all ethnic groups were well taken care of. “Our Malinké friends prefer leaf sauce, others like peanut sauce, others palm nut. We’re all going to eat together!”
Back at the soccer pitch, things were coming together slowly. Six large tents had been set up around the field, providing shade for a couple of hundred plastic chairs. By mid-afternoon the sun was fully ablaze, and a DJ had begun blasting music through several over-sized speakers. But only a few people had arrived, and aid workers were barking into their cell phones and hustling around in their 4x4 trucks as they tried to figure out why so few invitees had shown up.
Things finally got underway at about 4:30 p.m., and soon a procession of local government officials, religious leaders, and community chiefs were making their way to the microphone to offer their hopes for peace and reconciliation. But as I looked around I noticed that almost no residents from the neighborhood were in attendance. If you could have stripped away the festival organizers, local leaders, and representatives of the UN mission and other international aid groups, you’d have been left with practically no one. A number of people looked on from afar, hiding under the shade of a mango tree or the awning of a porch across the street. But only a couple dozen or so had actually approached the field or decided to take advantage of the many empty plastic chairs.
I walked up to a young man who was standing in the sun just behind one of the tents. He said his name was Deluxe Loa and that he was a 20-year-old student. He wore Converse sandals, a blue tank top, and a baseball cap with two long-barreled revolvers crossed over the bill. “Dodge City Kansas Police” was written over the guns.
“All the people of the neighborhood were invited, but they didn’t want to come,” said Loa, as another leader took the microphone in the center of the field and thanked everyone for coming together to embrace peace. “All those killings, and now these officials want us to reconcile. It’s a forced ceremony. We don’t want to reconcile. Too many people were killed.”
Loa said he was out of town when the attacks took place, but then he nodded at some of the young men lurking in the shadows behind him, a good distance away from the tents. “A lot of them were here,” he said. “Many of my friends were killed. And just two months ago two cousins of mine were killed in a bar in town. Soldiers just showed up and took them away. They were shot in the woods.”
Loa chewed on a tin cross that hung from a chain around his neck and looked back at the reconciliation ceremony, shaking his head. “We don’t want anything to do with this.”