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Story Publication logo January 17, 2012

Ivory Coast: The Unifying Power of Water

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After recent political violence divided communities, some in Ivory Coast look to local water...

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“We wanted the outside world to know that Ivorians and Liberians can live together peacefully. Our example speaks louder than any other political discourse.' Image by Selay Marius Kouassi. Ivory Coast, 2011.

The last step of my trip to western Ivory Coast took me to an IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) and refugee camp located in Guiglo. As its name suggests, it's a mixture of Ivorian IDPs and Liberian refugees.

In the courtyard of the camp, amid tents bearing the familiar letters "UNHCR" on their conical roofs, Eva Gborkey gave Patricia Koua a pat on the shoulder while whispering in her ear. The two women burst out laughing. At their feet, water flowed into buckets from taps connected to a bladder installed on a shelf.

Outside, some 50 meters away from the main entrance, the "blue helmet" soldiers from the UN mission in Ivory Coast watched the scene from guard towers.

Eva is a Liberian refugee while Patricia is Ivorian. A cohabitation of Ivorians and Liberians was something unthinkable just a few months ago, especially at the peak of the electoral crisis when people from both communities began suspecting each other of committing a large-scale massacre.

The once-bushy field was transformed into a refugee camp last March after villagers, fleeing fierce fighting, stopped at the UN military base in Guiglo.

"We've been living inside this camp for months now. We cannot venture outside the camp because locals are still hostile. We Liberians were seen as mercenaries or potential mercenaries whom a top politician could hire to terrorize the local population and fuel the Ivorian crisis," said Oscar Zeon, a representative of the Liberian refugees.

Oscar said the mistrust that existed between Liberians and Ivorians was deep.

"Even inside the camp, in the beginning, the living together with Ivorian IDPs was not easy. We suffered a lot," he said.

"We had very good reasons to be wary of Liberians and stay in our corner, not speaking to them," said Didier Toh, an Ivorian IDP. "They had a bad reputation and we were afraid and were on our guard."

But at the camp, by the water point, a six tap-fountain was instrumental in breaking the barrier between the two communities.

The water tap became the meeting point of the two formerly hostile communities. Ivorian IDPs and Liberians refugees lined up twice a day to fetch water.

"We women go to water point more often than men do. And the contact with Liberians has helped create affinities and more trust. Through talks, gossip, we learned to know each other better," said Eva Tokalo, an Ivorian.

I spent hours filming and interviewing Ivorians and Liberians here. I heard harrowing tales during my brief visit to the camp. But the statement that often pops to mind comes from Lucy Egbon, a 47-year-old Liberian.

"We wanted the outside world to know that Ivorians and Liberians can live together peacefully. Our example speaks louder than any other political discourse," Lucy said.

I had the privilege of traveling to western Ivory Coast, to Guiglo, on a special visit to the IDP and refugee camp. I was impressed by the efforts of these deprived communities in trying to heal the wounds of the post-election violence—and the critical role of water in bringing the two communities together.

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