Inside Ivory CoastWednesday 20 April 2011 14.48
Charles Bambara, a member of an Oxfam team travelling in Ivory Coast, describes the devastation and suffering he witnessed across the country.
I’m part of an Oxfam team that travelled to western Ivory Coast to plan how best to respond to the escalating humanitarian needs in the country.
Starting in Burkina Faso, we drove for two days before arriving in northern Ivory Coast. We visited Korogho, the main city of the Savannah Region in the north, a quiet and peaceful place. However, one can easily sense that the situation is not so rosy. Like many parts in the country, banks are closed and construction buildings are abandoned.
Many displaced people coming from the economic capital Abidjan have recently arrived in town, waiting to see what will happen following the political stand-off between Ouattara and Gbagbo. Many are living with local families, with friends or with extended family members.
After a ten-hour drive from Korogho, the team arrived in Man, in the mountainous region of Ivory Coast in the west of the country. We crossed cities - Boundialy, Odienné, Biankouma, and Touba - all surprisingly calm and quiet without any heavy military presence.
An hour after arriving, we met with different representatives of other agencies or UN colleagues already working in the region. Man has become a sort of 'humanitarian hub' for organisations over several weeks, responding to people who have suffered violence and intimidation.
The region has experienced four successive refugees flow.
The post-electoral violence was a traumatising experience for people in the Ivory Coast and many have chosen to move or relocate to other peaceful regions in Abidjan.
The city 'prefet' – a sort of mayor – is looking for new sites to host the latest arrival of displaced Ivorians. This fourth spike in refugees started at the end of March and continues until recently.
The Oxfam team went to Duékoué and Guiglo to visit people who are sheltering in community centres.
The situation in these cities located within the coffee and cocoa belt of Ivory Coast is very fragile. Killings, intimidation, violence and sexual assaults have been rampant in this area.
The main centre here is the Catholic parish of Our Lady of Nazareth, with close to 4,500 people sheltering in the church.
Father Augustine is in charge here. 'There are six other centres in different Christian churches in this area where people have gathered', he says.
'Altogether we are hosting almost 7,000 people in these centres. We have nothing left to share with them after distributing all our food stock', he added.
With the help of the local priests, the Nazareth centre seems well organised but very crowded. Additional sanitation facilities were being built to cope with the demand.
Water is a serious issue. Many people are sleeping under the trees talking in small groups, waiting for a quick return to normality. The prospect of returning home is still far off as people wait to assess the security in their home areas.
'There is a lot of intimidation when we go outside this compound. So the safest place for us is here at the parish,' said Andre, a member of the organising committee at this centre.
The local pastor, Mr Oulay Barthelemy, arrived and quickly engaged in conversation: 'I am hosting 300 people in my church, but I recognised that the needs here are much more important. My wife also runs a centre for abandoned children', he explained.
Pastor Oulay is hopeful that with the political developments in Abidjan, normality will return but 'it will take time', he conceded.
'I have started to work to change people’s mind and mentality; there should be no place for hatred between people living in the same community'.
Father Augustine summarised the needs of the people at the centre: they need food and security. Those are the top demands but also water along with basic necessities, such as clothes and cooking pots.
Duékoué is the city where many mass graves were discovered.
Massacres were carried out by all sides, according to the UN and other international human rights groups.
We met with some of the 27,000 displaced people confined in the courtyard of the local Catholic Church. The majority of people here are children and women. The UN was organising a blanket and soap distribution for families.
This centre was completely overcrowded. The main challenge seemed to be around managing the relief effort efficiently.
Inside the centre there is a small market place run by women and an improvised barbershop where men can get their heads shaved.
Duékoué was also calm, considering what has happened here over the past weeks.
Closer to the Liberia border
Next we went further into remote forest areas in a village called Gbapleu-Gningleu, 20km from the border of Liberia.
Days after the second round of the election, violence erupted here forcing people in the surrounding villages to flee across the forest to Liberia.
A nine-year-old boy told me he walked for hours all the way to Liberia with his parents. Since December there has been no school, but he hopes that after the Easter break, children will return to school.
I met Mr Sanogo Moussa, a 'wise man' from this village and owner of coffee plantation who is now retired.
'I was born here and I am 64 years old. We are part of this community now, alongside are all our Ivoirian brothers and sisters and we have a common goal for our families and our village to prosper. That’s all.'
Despite encouraging words from Mr Moussa, there are still many urgent needs here, especially a shortage of latrines and the recurrent demand of my trip, food.
It is fairly simple: before the next harvest people say they need seed to plant in order to have food in the coming months.
By Charles Bambara, Oxfam