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A war-torn nation is united by the ‘Elephants’

The Ivory Coast soccer team has made it to the World Cup — and united a nation riven by civil war. As's Petra Cahill reports from New York City, the Ivorian ex-pat community also is hopeful that the ethnically mixed team can pave the way for reconciliation in their war-torn homeland.
Supporters of the Ivory Coast team cheer at the match against Argentina in Hamburg, Germany, on Saturday. Argentina won, 2-1.Kay Nietfeld / EPA
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NEW YORK — The joyous shouts of “Voilà! and Allez-y!” from the crowd gathered at the Ivoire Restaurant on Saturday turned to sad groans as Ivory Coast lost its first World Cup match against Argentina.

But the 2-1  result in the first match of super-tough Group C, described by some sports commentators as the "group of death," is unlikely to dampen the spirits of soccer supporters from this war-torn nation — fans who have become united by their first chance to compete on soccer’s international world stage.

Divided by a north-south civil war since 2002, the national team, known as the Elephants, is made up of a mix of players from different ethnic and religious groups. With all eyes on the World Cup, the team has bonded the country, with the various factions putting down their weapons and respecting a cease-fire.

“For the moment, everyone is thinking about soccer and the World Cup and we have forgotten about the war,” explained Kata Kaba, a 48-year-old Ivorian expatriate living in New York. “Thanks to soccer, the country is going to reconcile its differences.” 

Strife at home
Ivory Coast, once considered a jewel of West Africa and an anchor of stability in that tumultuous region, has descended into chaos over the past decade.

In a nation made up of about 60 ethnic groups and many immigrants, tolerance had been the key to the country's success in the post-colonial era. The country’s open-door policy toward foreign workers fueled the economy and made it one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of cocoa and coffee. 

But with a downturn in world coffee prices, politicians in the late 1990s seized on long-dormant ethnic and religious rivalries in order to assert power. With a population made up of 30 percent Christians, 35 percent Muslims and 30 percent animists and a large population from neighboring countries, the notion of “Ivorité” or “true Ivorian” became a political catchphrase and served to stir up xenophobia against the predominantly Muslim north.

Tensions between the Christian south the wealthier part of the country that had long held power and Muslim northerners, who felt they were being discriminated against, came to a head in 2002 when rebels from the north staged an attempted coup.

Since then, thousands have been killed and the country has been split in two: rebels control the north and government forces loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo hold sway in the south. Meanwhile, a contingent of 4,000 French troops and 7,000 U.N. peacekeepers stand between the two factions, helping to maintain a fragile cease-fire.

National pride on display
The enthusiasm coming from the crowd Saturday afternoon at the Ivoire Restaurant, a no-frills eatery in the city’s Harlem section, might have fooled any bystander who wasn’t aware of the strife going on back at home.

The restaurant, its interior painted the orange of the country’s team color, was packed with a strong sense of national pride. All eyes were on the flat-screen TV broadcasting a French network’s coverage of the match. 

A young waitress in an bright orange tee-shirt and an orange, green and white belt served steaming plates of Ivorian delicacies — rice and grilled fish, fried plantains — to the largely male crowd. Strong coffee, heavily sugared tea, water or Orangina were the beverages of choice for the mostly Muslim crowd.

United by a team
The Elephants fortunes rose and fell during the course of the game — mostly down until the room exploded when the team’s star player Didier Drogba, a Chelsea striker, scored their one goal in the 82nd minute — but hopes for peace in their nation remained constant.

“After the World Cup, the country will return to peace, because that’s what we’re working on,” said Kaba, who was born in the north but lived in the southern commercial capital, Abidjan, before coming to this country three years ago.

“We’ll have an election, and Ivory Coast will return to what it was before,” said Kaba, who believes that the fact that the team representing the country in the World Cup is mixed in terms of religions and ethnicities and straddles all lines of division created by the civil war has had a positive effect on the country.

And, indeed, though a series of peace promises over the past few years have failed to reunite the country, progress has been made in recent weeks on a U.N.-backed deal, with pro-government militias in promising to begin disarming on June 16 in preparation for national elections in October.

Kaba ticked off the list of ethnic groups represented on the squad — “the Dioula, the Baoulé, the Betié” — emphasizing the fact that it was not a team that represented one region.

The team is keenly aware that they are in a unique position to be a force for unity.

Drogba, the Elephant's captain, has made a point of saying that the team is a symbol of tolerance and a reflection of how the country was in the past: a diverse ethnic group forming one national identity.

According to news reports, after the team's decisive win over Sudan that guaranteed their place in the World Cup, Drogba led his team in a plea for peace.

"Ivorians, we ask for your forgiveness," they said. "Let us come together and put this war behind us."

Still hopeful
Mamadou Coulibaly, 39, who hails from Odienné, another city in the north of Ivory Coast echoed those hopes. “Everyone is actually united right now. We hope that will continue after the cup.”

“It’s our wish that we can win tonight so it will motivate everyone to be together," he said during half time.

On Saturday night, that wish didn’t come true and the Elephants fans were exhausted by the excitement and disappointment by the result of the match.

But with other games still to come and hopes still riding high, no one cares who is a “true Ivorian” or an “immigrant” on the soccer field, a feeling patrons at the Ivoire Restaurant hope will continue even when the World Cup is over.

Losseni Diabate, who was sporting an orange zip-up sweatshirt with Cote d’Ivoire (the country’s official name) running down the side in green-and-white lettering, was disappointed by the result, but still hopeful for the country’s future.

Diabate had been running a successful cocoa business in the western city of Daloa until 1999 when fears about the imminent war and unrest forced him to flee to this country. He now drives a cab for “Ivoire Car,” a livery cab company in New York, but is anxious to return home.

Surveying the crowd of Ivorians outside the restaurant after the game, Diabate said he hoped for peace at home “so we can all go back.”

One thing’s for sure, said Cisse Cheick Mohamed, the manager of the 15-year-old restaurant — that his mixed clientele would be back for the next match, against the Netherlands, on Friday.