Armed gangs are terrorising villagers in western Côte d’Ivoire, say human rights campaigners.
As politicians wrangle over election preparations ordinary people are living in constant fear of violent robbery or of being pulled from a bus and raped.
Masked gangs are building makeshift roadblocks to then rob and attack local people, said a Human Rights Watch report out on Friday.
The international watchdog says the lawlessness links back to the 2002-2003 civil war that split the western African country between north and south. Since then, the government’s failure to protect people and punish attackers has encouraged the situation.
The 72 page report Afraid and Forgotten: Lawlessness, Rape, and Impunity in Western Côte d'Ivoire centres on the far western regions of Dix-Huit Montagnes and Moyen-Cavally, which Human Rights Watch said were hardest hit by the fighting.
It catalogues brutal physical and sexual violence fuelled by the disintegration of legal institutions, a failed disarmament process that has left the region awash with arms, and state officials' refusal to respond to attacks.
After presidential elections have been repeatedly put on hold over the last five years, Ivorians are finally due to vote next Sunday (October 31, 2010).
"Residents in western Côte d'Ivoire are consumed by fear of violent robbery or of being pulled from a bus and raped," said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch.
"Improving this shameful state of affairs should be an urgent priority for whoever wins the election."
The report is based on interviews with more than 80 victims, as well as government officials, police and army officials, rebel soldiers and representatives from the United Nations and aid organizations.
Criminal gangs in the area regularly attack people in their homes, as they work their fields, and as they walk to market or travel between their villages and towns. The attacks peak on weekly market days, when women gather to buy and sell goods, it said.
Armed with Kalashnikovs, hunting rifles, long knives, and machetes, the masked gangs strip their victims to find every last coin, inflict physical abuse and, at times, kill those who refuse to give up their money or threaten to identify their attackers.
Hundreds of women and girls have been sexually assaulted, raped, or gang raped during these attacks. Human Rights Watch said there were 109 rapes in Moyen Cavally and Dix-Huit Montagnes since January last year, but the real number of victims is most likely much higher.
The report mentioned several attacks where armed men raped more than a dozen women and girls whom they had forced off buses. In one single attack in January, at least 20 women and girls were raped.