My driver is ecstatic. His smile is huge as we pass through the checkpoints. He waves to the soldiers of the Forces Republicaines de Côte d'Ivoire (FRCI), loyal to Alassane Ouatarra, the internationally recognized leader of the country, and then gives a thumbs-up to congratulate them on what he considers a job well done. Of course, it's partially an act to get us through each of the many checkpoints smoothly (there were more than 30 today, if you include the round-trip). But he's also sincere as he points out the many cars on the road, the Burkinabe and Malian tribes moving around freely, and our own freedom to work.
"Under Gbagbo, we could never be here!" he says, referring to Laurent Gbagbo, the deposed president. "You'd try to go anywhere, do anything, and they'd ask to see your papers, ask to see this and that, and then send you away! I'm telling you, everything will get better now."
Admittedly, I don't have his knowledge and experience in Ivory Coast, his home country. All the same, I find it difficult to share his optimism after what we've seen lately.
We traced two massacres, as much as we were able, as well as the burning and looting of several smaller villages. Details on all are shaky. In one neighborhood of Duékoué, it seems the advancing FRCI joined with soldiers from the so-called "foreign" tribes (originally from Burkina Faso, Mali, and northern Ivory Coast and slaughtered at least a couple hundred of the local Guere people (some estimates are far higher). In Blolekin, about a 90-minute drive away, the FRCI gathered civilians to an area that they deemed safe; unfortunately, it was not, and the retreating militias loyal to Gbagbo (reportedly made up of Guere, and of Liberian mercenaries) broke in and killed as many people as possible.
It's tricky to report on these situations, and to consider what they imply for the past and future of this region. It seems no one here is innocent—even as I spoke to the victims of the Duékoué incident, I had to keep in mind why their "foreign" neighbors (and assailants) were so disgruntled. The Guere are the traditional landowners, and the other tribes migrated here to work on their cocoa plantations. In many cases, the land was given or sold to the migrants—only to be forcefully taken back once the cocoa trade became successful. The foreign tribes lived under these conditions for years, until they apparently saw Ouattara's potential ascension as a chance to strike back. They did so, brutally.
Thus my hesitance to comment on the future. Yesterday, even as a leader of the Burkinabe community passionately told us that he's urging his people to end all reprisal killings, we learned of one more Guere man who had just been killed by a vengeful Burkinabe.
But there is certainly less violence here than there was a week ago, and hints at a return to normalcy (if that term can possibly apply here). Displaced people were on the road en masse today, balancing their possessions on their heads, walking single file back to their villages. The community leaders we've spoken to (along with my driver) are confident that the revenge killings will cease on both sides, and that the next step for western Ivory Coast is equality.
I certainly hope they're right.