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War-torn Ivory Coast abandoned

As security deteriorates and foreign aid dries up in Ivory Coast, there are few left to deal with the growing humanitarian crisis. NBC’s Petra Cahill reports.
/ Source: NBC News

Over the past month in the Ivory Coast, hundreds of people have been killed and tens of thousands displaced by a war that blew in the wake of a failed coup. The deep divisions between the Muslim north and the Christian South now dominate the landscape of a country long held up as a model of stability in the region. As security deteriorates and foreign aid and investments dry up, there are few left to deal with the growing humanitarian crisis.

“Everyone else has abandoned us, but we can’t leave, this is our country,” said Father Dino, an Italian priest at the Catholic mission in Prikro, about 125 miles east of the rebel-held city of Bouake. Since the American and French militaries successfully evacuated most of their countrymen in recent weeks, there are few other sources of Western aid left in the country.

The “war” has not arrived in Prikro, yet. But, according to Valentine Dgina, a secretary at the local governor’s office, there is a constant stream of people arriving in town on foot after walking three days from Bouake, 100 miles away. As food supplies and transportation have been cut in that city, citizens have been forced to flee any way they can.


There is a fear that the rebels could reach Prikro, but for the moment Father Dino’s work in his adopted country of twenty-one years goes on undeterred. Father Dino has been coordinating relief efforts for the refugees from Bouake with the Catholic Mission in M’bahiakro, a larger town halfway in between Bouake and Prikro. According to Father Dino, the Catholic Mission in M’bahiakro has been receiving between 100 and 300 refugees a night. Father Dino has sent rice, yams, peanuts, and pineapples down to M’bahiakro to help with the relief effort.

But the 60-mile road between Prikro and M’bahiakro has at least three military check-points, and since gas supplies have also been cut, future food deliveries from Prikro may prove challenging.

According to Father Dino, the International Red Cross (IRC) arrived in M’bahiakro a few days ago to help with relief efforts. But even they are hindered by a lack of resources. “We would like to help more, but we do not have the means,” said Monsieur Kouakou, the Abidjan-based IRC coordinator for Ivory Coast. “We do not have enough food or medicine to help all the refugees,” he added. The IRC has aid workers in Bouake and near the northern city of Korhogo, but they do not have the capacity to assist all the refugees.


The offices of the IRC and UNICEF are based in the capital of Abidjan, which has remained largely untouched and secure during the current uprising. According to people in Abidjan, life goes on there as normal. But, getting aid workers up-country to the refugees who need them most is challenging. “For the moment, because of security, we cannot visit Bouake. Since we can not enter the terrain where we are needed, its hard,” said Patrica Agavon at UNICEF’s Abidjan office.

The crisis in Ivory Coast has been brewing for several years, but it is a historical departure. This former French colony and the world’s largest cocoa producing country was long regarded as a model of stability and prosperity in an otherwise highly unstable region.

The country was relatively open, with foreigners from neighboring countries flocking to Ivory Coast. It’s capital Abidjan was once dubbed the “Paris of West Africa,” because of its abundant opportunities. Abidjan became a commercial hub for the region, with key organizations based there, including the African Development Bank, the West African stock exchange, and the headquarters for many multinational companies like Nestle.


Tolerance was key in a country made up of more than sixty different ethnic groups, and where 34% of the population is Christian, 27% is Muslim, and 15% is animist. But, after the death in 1993 of President Houphuet-Boigny — who had lead the country since it gained independence from France in 1960 — and a downturn in the world coffee prices, politicians seized long dormant ethnic rivalries in order to assert power.

President Henri Konan Bedie, successor to Houiphuet-Boigny, coined the term “Ivoirite,” or “true Ivorian,” — creating ethnic tension among people who had long ignored their differences. The country went through a coup in 1999 and election violence in 2000 that left more than 250 people dead. The latest coup attempt and rebel movement have all but shattered Ivory Coast’s image as a stable country, and many foreign aid groups are abandoning ship.

As of Oct. 3, the U.S. Peace Corps officially “suspended” their program in the Ivory Coast, according to Ellen Field, Communications Director for the U.S. Peace Corps. Before the current rebellion, the Peace Corps had 133 volunteers in the country, five of whom were in the Prikro region. According to Field, all of the volunteers were successfully “relocated” to Accra, Ghana as of Oct. 1. The suspension means that the Peace Corps does not have an active program in the country. It is also indefinite, which means it could last weeks or months, depending on the security situation on the ground. If things deteriorate, the program in the country could be closed entirely.


For Moussa Yao, a subsistence farmer and a community leader in the village of Abededni, about 7 miles from Prikro, the suspension of the Peace Corps in his region puts the brakes on his work. Moussa, as he is called, was crucial to getting the Peace Corps into his village six years ago, and was pivotal in getting other volunteers into the town of Prikro and other villages in the region.

Over the past six years, volunteers in the region have helped to eradicate Guinea worm, built countless latrines, and improved the local school systems. Moussa is now occupied with the day-to-day problems presented by the brewing crisis.

“The women’s cooperative rice-hulling machine is working well and is helping to ease the work load for the women, but now there is no gas for the machine,” he explained. Likewise, the women’s cooperative has accumulated seven metric tons of rice from this season’s harvest, but they are cut off from the nearest large market—in war-torn Bouake. Roads to many other markets are closed.


For Peace Corps volunteers like Eric Haglund, the suspension of the Peace Corps program in the Ivory Coast is “very disappointing.” Haglund, originally from Colorado, began his Peace Corps training in the Ivory Coast in January 2002 and started work in his village of Konandi-n’dakro, near Priko, in April. According to Haglund, most Peace Corps volunteers were taken by surprise at how quickly the situation in Ivory Coast deteriorated.

“When it first happened, most volunteers thought that just a few people were causing problems and that the government would have the situation under control in a few days. Then things escalated quickly with reports of civilian violence,” said Haglund. “No one had any idea when we were evacuated to Ghana that we would not be allowed back.”

Haglund went on to explain that most volunteers felt “a lack of closure” and were particularly disappointed that they never got a chance to say good-bye to their friends in their villages or the opportunity to thank them for their hospitality.

For the moment, the Peace Corps program in the Ivory Coast remains suspended and it is not clear if the program will restart in the country. However, with typical optimism, Moussa remained confident that “the Americans will be back,” and that future volunteers will return to help him improve his country. But it may be a long time before American confidence in the stability of Ivory Coast will return.

(Petra Cahill is an NBC assignment editor based in New York. She was based in Ivory Coast as a Peace Corps volunteer between 1998 and 2000. Reuters contributed to this report.)