ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — In an act of bold defiance, thousands of women converged Tuesday on the bloodstained pavement where seven of their sisters fell last week, even as the army backing this country's rogue leader killed four more civilians.
The brutal slayings last week occurred when soldiers in armored personnel carriers opened fire on a crowd of female demonstrators who were armed with nothing more than tree branches, symbolizing peace.
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The attack has further galvanized the international community against strongman Laurent Gbagbo, who has refused to yield power three months after being declared the loser of his country's election.
The women had tried to march everyday since the attack Thursday only to lose their nerve in the face of an army that has shown no restraint, including by breaking the long-standing code that has always protected women. They refused to be cowed on Tuesday, however, because it was International Women's Day.
Hours after several hundred women marched in Treichville, a downtown neighborhood, the army burst in and killed at least four civilians. Reporters saw the bodies of three men and one women on the blood-splattered floor of a clinic.
Thousands of other women demonstrating near the site of last week's killings in the Abobo district were protected by men who had formed a wall across the mouth of a freeway by lining cars end-to-end.
Mariam Bamba, 32, picked up a limp branch Tuesday next to one of the blood stains on pavement. "This leaf is all they were carrying," she said of the victims.
The seven women are just a fraction of the more than 400 people killed in the three months since this country's disputed election. Because they were unarmed women, their deaths have prompted international condemnation, including from the U.S. State Department which called Gbagbo "morally bankrupt."
A video obtained by The Associated Press shows the joyful crowd blowing whistles and waving branches moments before the women are mowed down.
When Sako Bamara arrived at the hospital last Thursday, his relatives told him not to lift the cloth covering his wife's body. At least not above the shoulders. "They wouldn't let me look at her face," he said. "So I had to identify her feet," he said. Then he broke down.
The video's grainy footage clearly shows that the 34-year-old had been decapitated. Her brother-in-law was the first to arrive and recognized her by the color of her T-shirt. Bones were protruding from her neck. Beyond there was nothing. The survivors brought wooden carts from the nearby market and used them to transport the dead to the hospital.
Bamara had encouraged her to go to the march, just as so many other husbands and fathers had. "That morning she asked my permission to go. I said, 'Be careful.' Since they are women, I thought they would never shoot."
At the hospital, the dead women were laid side by side, and at one point a mobile phone started ringing inside the pocket of one of the other lifeless women.
Bamara's brother lifted the cloth covering her body and retrieved it out of her pocket. On the other end was the dead girl's frantic father, Gnelle Gnon Ouattara, who could not reach his 21-year-old daughter Rokiya. He rushed to the hospital and saw his child, part of her neck sheared off by the large-caliber bullet.
"In Africa we say that it's the child that must bury the father," said Ouattara. "When it's the father that buries the child, something isn't right."
The women marching Tuesday wore T-shirts bearing the smiling portrait of 'ADO' — Alassane Dramane Ouattara, the democratically elected president who has been prevented from governing the country by Gbagbo. He has spent the first three months of his term inside a resort hotel under day-and-night United Nations protection, and was to leave the grounds for the first time Tuesday night at the invitation of the African Union.
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Both Ouattara and Gbagbo have been invited to travel to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to hear the verdict of the AU's Peace and Security Council, which was attempting to find a solution to the crisis. Ouattara has called on the international community to launch an armed intervention in order to oust Gbagbo, who appeared on state television last week to say that he is "hanging in there."
"I heard someone say that God has left Africa," said Yacouba Ouattara, a relative of one of the dead women. "No. It's Ivory Coast that God has left."
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