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People of Ivory Coast living in a climate of fear

It is now over a month since clashes began after the disputed presidential election in Ivory Coast.

Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of the election, has taken refuge in a hotel situated along the coast from the city of Abidjan. Around 800 United Nations (UN) troops are protecting the Golf Hotel, which is operating as Mr Ouattara’s makeshift headquarters. From this base, Mr Ouattara has called for a month-long ban on cocoa exports. Ivory Coast is the world’s largest cocoa producer. As one of Mr Ouattara’s ministers explained, revenue from the harvest helps to keep Laurent Gbagbo in power, since “the heart of power is in [the country’s] finance”. Meanwhile the Nigerian Foreign Minister has called on the UN Security Council to authorize the use of force to oust Mr Gbagbo.

Sending in armed forces is seen a ‘last resort’ by the international community. But people living inside Ivory Coast are waiting anxiously for outside help to resolve the situation. In the city of Abidjan, people are trying to live as normally as possible, but are fearful hostilities could break out at any moment. One man, who normally lives in a block of flats near to the Golf Hotel, has abandoned his apartment. Arthur Kouassi said his block was caught in crossfire between fighting factions and all the 300 residents left after stray bullets “took the lives of children here”.

Schools and other public facilities are attempting to operate as best they can, despite a call by Mr Ouattara that citizens should strike. Markets are also open, though as soon as gun shots are heard, shopkeepers hastily close up their premises. Despite the rising cost of food in Ivory Coast, many people are buying in bulk to reduce the number of times they have to go out. Louisette is a secondary school teacher, who says that each time she shops for food, she “buy[s] for a week”. The teacher is angry that political wrangling has left her country polarized and people no longer feel free to move around their own city in safety.

Local UN staff also report living in fear since the UN is backing Mr Ouattara. All non-essential staff have been instructed not to report to work and to stay at home, while many international employees are living in their offices. One local employee who normally works as a driver with a separate UN agency says “I don’t tell people I work for the UN”. Some of his colleagues have been verbally abused and even received death threats and there are frequent rumours of plans among Mr Gbagbo’s supporters to attack UN personnel. The UN agency driver says “I have to hide my fear from my seven children” and admits he doesn’t have much hope for peace. Whatever hope he has for the avoidance of another war in Ivory Coast lies with the international community.

Laurinda Luffman signature