On a crooked chair behind a crippled wooden desk, I sat transcribing interviews from the day I spent at an Ivorian refugee camp, a short distance from the frontier between Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. There was little else to do besides work in this eerie coastal town called Essiama, which had nothing but a few provision stores and a church set among the run-down concrete houses with their rotting window shutters flapping in the wind. It was strange to think that the post-election fighting that began last November and the battle for Abidjan had occurred only a few more hours westward of this sleepy place, in a conflict that was sparked by former president Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to recognise the electoral victory to the now president Alassane Ouattara.
While the battle may have officially ended, recent reports from human rights groups suggest that the nation’s problems are far from over. The UN mission in Côte d’Ivoire earlier this month reported that pro-Ouattara forces have carried out 26 extrajudicial killings in the past month. Among other crimes committed were 85 illegal arrests and 11 r-pes.
Amnesty International also recently released a report titled “We want to go home: Côte d’Ivoire’s continuing crisis of displacement and insecurity” that details human rights abuses committed after Gbagbo’s arrest. The report focuses on human rights abuses committed by the Republican Forces of Côte d’Ivoire (FRCI), the official military force that was created in April after Gbagbo’s arrest and is made up of members of the Forces Nouvelles, the pro-Ouattara rebel group that helped defeat of the former president.
The UN refugee agency estimates that post-election conflict that killed 3000 has displaced 670,000 Ivorians, 500,000 of whom have been displaced internally. Amnesty says the majority of displaced persons are those who belong to ethnic groups perceived to be supporters of Laurent Gbagbo. The organisation has also documented allegations of rights abuses and enforced disappearances in the neighbourhood of Yopougon, where some of the worst battles in Abidjan were fought, and a place from which many of the 16,000 refugees, now living in camps throughout Ghana, fled.
When I visited the camp at Ampain, now more than a month ago, Kelly Forson the camp manager said that less than 100 of the 6000 refugees in the camp had returned home and he thought it was unlikely that they would return for some time. When I spoke with him recently he again said that fewer had returned since.
At the camp I met N’Guessan Valdèse, a 26-year-old university student who had been living in Yopougon. Valdèse said that he could not return to Abidjan because he was a known Gbagbo supporter.
“There was a lot of repression after we lost and we ran to save our lives,” Valdèse said. “After the fighting stopped, people came to my house and pointed at me. Even if I showed by ID card and they saw that I was a student, they would automatically assume that you are backing someone and would kill you straight.”
As soon as Valdèse came to the camp, after Gbagbo’s arrest, he heard news that three of his friends, all Gbagbo supporters living in Abdijan, had been killed. Valdèse said he did not fight in the conflict but kept watch over his neighborhood and sometimes blocked the roads. While he did not support Ouattara’s presidency, he said that Ivorians should wait until Gbagbo is released from prison and vote for him in the next presidential elections.
Matt Wells, a researcher in Human Rights Watch’s Africa division, said that young men, such as Valdèse, were often targeted by the FRCI because they are suspected of being militiamen: “When I was there in May it was quite clear that young men from pro-Gbagbo ethnic groups were often perceived to be militiamen without any evidence and were targeted as such. They were routinely subject to arbitrary arrests, detention and at times summary executions.”
In another section of the site, I met the president of the camp. He asked not to be named and told me that he had worked as a jurist representing workers rights. After offering me a history of Cote d’Ivoire’s 2002 civil war in French, he set forth a synopsis of the conflict: Gbagbo’s forces were merely defending themselves against attacks by the Forces Nouvelles.
The man told me that two weeks before Gbagbo was captured, neighbours had informed him that Ouattara’s forces went to his house in Abidjan. He moved to another house and later fled with his wife and five children when Gbagbo was arrested. He said he had heard from neighbors that the rebels had taken over his large house and two cars.
“Moi, je suis à zero,” (I am nothing) he said.
My final interview was with a former pro-Gbagbo militant, 20-year-old Gnande Frank Fernand. We met in a far corner of the camp, among scrub and palm trees where people lay sleeping on mats and women beat their palms against the earth and prayed. Fernand was a muscular man with bloodshot eyes. He offered his real name, something few militants in this camp were willing to do as immigration and the Refugee Board have been identifying combatants and monitoring them at another camp closer to the border.
Fernand is Guéré, an ethnic group perceived to be allied with former president Gbagbo, and he comes from a family of Gbagbo supporters. Before the conflict he was training to be a police officer but joined Gbagbo’s forces.
“We were always being attacked by Ouattara’s forces and we had to defend ourselves and fight,” he said. “But during the fighting sometimes poor innocent people killed.” He said that he lost two childhood friends who were also combatants during a battle in Adjamé.
Would he go back for revenge? “I could go back for revenge, but it is not possible at the moment,” he said. “If the situation should change, I will go back and fight.”
Back in April, Ouattara announced that he would set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and called on the International Criminal Court to conduct investigations into crimes committed throughout the country. But groups such as Human Rights Watch have criticised his government for not charging or investigations members of his own forces.
“We have seen more than 90 now from the Gbagbo camp that have been detained and tried for crimes from the post-election period, but there isn’t a single member of the Republican Forces that has been charged or credibly investigated for crimes that they have committed,” said Matt Wells. “This impunity just fuels the abuse that it is ongoing and fuels the idea that these soldiers can get away with crimes without fear of punishment.”
Concerns have also been raised about two military promotions earlier this month in which commanders from the Forces Nouvelles, against whom there are allegations of human rights abuses, were promoted to senior positions in presidential security and the military.
While Côte d’Ivoire may be relatively stable for now, human rights organisations continue to express concern at the government’s seeming unwillingness to investigate and prosecute its own forces, suggesting that for now we are only seeing victor’s justice.