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A spiral of violence

By Tope Akinwande
West Africa is mired in widespread and intertwined conflicts causing the death, mutilation and displacement of millions of people. For more than a decade, the region has been struggling with civil war in Liberia. The situation grew worse as conflict erupted in Sierra Leone in 1991, in Guinea in 2001 and most recently in Côte d'Ivoire.

Arrival of Guineans fleeing Côte d'Ivoire, port of
Conakry, 5 March 2003.

On the eve of a US-led invasion of Iraq earlier this year, the United Nations Security Council was sounding the alarm about conflict in another region — West Africa, where recent violence in Côte d'Ivoire alone had left tens of thousands of civilians hungry, afraid and homeless.

"I was studying law when fresh attacks began in my country," explains 24-year-old Bradley Brown, a Liberian refugee. "I would like to go back home, complete my education and become a successful attorney and human rights activist. I'm tired of moving from one refugee camp to another."

Brown's friend, 19-year-old Ivorian Arnaud Gahé had just gained admission to a French university to study economics. He was in the western city of Man to bid his family farewell when fighting broke out between armed forces from the Côte d'Ivoire government and opposition groups in November 2002. He had to run for his life, leaving behind his hopes for the future. "I had planned to become a great economist and work for the African Development Bank or the World Bank. All my dreams have been blown away by this war because I have lost all my travelling and school documents." Heaving a sigh of despair, he concludes rhetorically, "When will West Africa know peace?"

A decade of conflict

Conflicts in West Africa have traditionally been characterized by cross-border ethnic clashes. The violence started in 1989 when a seven-year civil war began in Liberia that eventually engulfed neighbouring Sierra Leone. Thousands of people from Liberia and Sierra Leone sought refuge in Guinea.

With over 400,000 people sheltered in different camps, Guinea became home to one of the world's largest refugee populations. But cross-border conflict did not erupt between Guinea and its neighbours until 2000 when Sierra Leone's armed group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), and various Liberian armed groups launched several attacks.

The humanitarian situation reached an alarming stage in Guinea in March 2001 when fighting erupted in a military base in Parrot's Beak, a Guinean territory bordering Sierra Leone and Liberia, displacing thousands of refugees as well as their Guinean hosts.

The situation in this region improved gradually in 2001. Apart from the fighting between the Liberian government and the armed opposition group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), there were no cross-border battles. Refugees were relocated far from the borders, providing them a more secure living environment. Hundreds of thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees also returned home following the official declaration of the end of the conflict on 18 January 2002.

However, with intensified hostilities in recent months in Liberia and with mutual accusations traded between Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone of accommodating one another's armed opposition groups, the peace efforts in this volatile part of West Africa are being put to a rude test.


Violence erupts anew

Despite the devastating effects of the conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, none have threatened the total destabilization of the region as the Ivorian crisis.

The situation in Côte d'Ivoire, formerly the most stable country in the region, became worse in September 2002. What started as a protest against the imminent demobilization of a group of soldiers has turned into a full-blown war that has divided the country into two with three armed groups — the Patriotic Movement of Côte d'Ivoire, the Ivorian Patriotic Movement for Greater West, and the Movement for Justice and Peace — controlling the north and west of the country leaving the government with the south.

Côte d'Ivoire was the economic and political heart of West Africa with 5 million foreigners living there, most of them economic migrants. Today, thousands of civilians have been killed, and thousands of people have been displaced within the country. Add to that some 400,000 mostly third-country nationals who have left since the violence began.

In response to the crisis, the ICRC, as lead agency, and the International Federation are supporting the efforts of the Red Cross Society of Côte d'Ivoire to assist victims of the conflict. "With ICRC offices in Abidjan, Bouaké, Korhogo and Man, and 39 National Society local committees, the Red Cross is operational throughout the
country," says Simon Pleuss, ICRC communications delegate in Abidjan. "We also have the authorization and security guarantees from all parties involved, thereby enabling access to everyone."

Shortly after fighting broke out in Abidjan, the Red Cross Society of Côte d'Ivoire set up emergency hotlines, with assistance from the International Federation, for members of the public requiring assistance. "We received a lot of distress calls from different wounded residents who needed evacuation. Several hospitals that were overwhelmed with victims asked for our volunteers and logistics support. It was very chaotic," says Louis-Philippe Aka, co-ordinator of the Côte d'Ivoire Red Cross emergency response team.

The globetrotting refugee

When he is not reading his bible or listening to news on his battered transistor radio, "Pappy Good Old Days", whose real name is David Crawford Siaway Jr., reminisces about the good old days when, in his words, "people crossed the borders without the fear of being roasted by a rebel's bullet". His constant reference to a former peaceful region earned him the nickname "Pappy Good Old Days". He is appreciated by refugees and regularly consulted when disputes arise among them.

David Siaway's calm and good humour belies his predicament. His life speaks for thousands of refugees caught between the conflicts of West Africa.

A US trained economist and lawyer, David was working in a financial institution before fleeing Liberia in 1990 with 15 family members. They sought refuge in Sierra Leone before running to Guinea in 1992 when fighting erupted in their host country. David and his family moved to Côte d'Ivoire in 1993 where they stayed till 1997. They returned to Liberia after the general elections with the hope of settling down and rebuilding their lives. However that was not to be, as fighting broke out between the Liberian government and the LURD group causing David and his family to flee again.

"For me, I had come home in 1997 to pick up the pieces of my life but I was disappointed when fighting erupted again," he said sadly. This time around, David fled to Côte d'Ivoire where he stayed with 11 family members, having lost four of them during different flights. They were living in Côte d'Ivoire until November 2002 when the west of the country was taken over by Ivorian armed groups. They fled heavy fighting and moved to Guinea.

Asked what his plans were, David answered, "I would like to go to Ghana where I can, at least, be buried next to my first son who I learnt is doing some business there. He had the foresight of going to Ghana." David smiled and said sarcastically: "Going to Ghana will not be a bad idea. After all I am a globetrotting refugee."

Things became more chaotic as fighting was reported in other parts of the country, particularly in Bouaké, Korogho, Daloa and Man. "The ICRC has been supporting services essential to the population's survival such as material assistance to some 80 health care structures and the upkeep of water treatment plants," says Pleuss. "To that end, it has organized 34 humanitarian convoys across the front lines since the beginning of hostilities. However, our activities are not limited to emergency assistance as we have been visiting military personnel and civilians detained in connection with the conflict."

Red Cross volunteers in government-held areas as well as those in armed opposition-held zones have been braving all odds to assist victims of the conflict. In Abidjan where the government had ordered the destruction of shanty towns as a means of preventing armed insurgents from using them as a hideout, the National Society distributed essential non-food items to thousands of residents left homeless.

The situation in the west of the country is extremely worrying. "We have been trying to assist vulnerable people in western Côte d'Ivoire but it has not been easy due to high insecurity in the area," admits Monique Coulibaly, president of Red Cross Society of Côte d'Ivoire. "Four of our volunteers were killed in Toulepleu."

The local Red Cross in the region, despite the loss of the four volunteers, is doing its best to help. "In the early days of fighting, the only people you could find on the streets of Bouaké apart from armed insurgents were Red Cross volunteers," says Germain Konan Kouamé, Bouaké Red Cross branch information officer, with a certain pride. "We were all over the place identifying and collecting dead bodies. We also helped in disposing solid waste and rubbish dumps on the outskirts of the city."

At the time of writing, the situation does not look likely to improve. According to Pierre Ryter, ICRC head of delegation in Côte d'Ivoire, "In the west, we cannot respond to the real scale of needs due to the current lack of security guarantees for our staff."


Liberian Red Corss volunteers hang tracing posters in front of the ICRC delegation in Movrovia.

Massive refugee problem

"Judging from the position of Côte d'Ivoire in West Africa, this conflict could evolve into an extremely serious long-term crisis in the subregion," warned Niels Scott, head of the International Federation's regional delegation in Abidjan, as early as October
2002. "And while we are helping the National Society to assist the victims of this crisis, we are also supporting neighbouring Red Cross Societies as they prepare for an influx of refugees."

As soon as the conflict erupted on19 September, people began pouring into neighbouring countries such as Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali and Niger. Often the Red Cross is the first port of call. Volunteers offer them first aid, information and counselling.

"We have been receiving a steady stream of returnees and refugees since the day after the conflict erupted in Côte d'Ivoire," explains Sibiry Diarra, secretary general of the Malian Red Cross. "We were the first humanitarian organization to assist victims of the Ivorian crisis, providing each family with food and non-food items such as rice, cooking oil, soap, mosquito net and sleeping mats." However, the prolonged war in Côte d'Ivoire has increased the influx of returnees, refugees and third-country nationals, thus overstretching the coping limits of the government.

"We are overwhelmed by the influx of people fleeing the Ivorian crisis," says Samasseko Bocary, governor of Sikasso, second-largest city in Mali. "Though the Red Cross has been assisting us since the arrival of the first batch of refugees and returnees, we need more assistance to meet their needs."

In anticipation of a massive return of about 3 million Burkinabes in Côte d'Ivoire, the Burkina Faso Red Cross (BFRC) established a crisis committee at its headquarters. "As fighting erupted in Côte d'Ivoire, we knew a lot of returnees and refugees would start crossing the border and we didn't want to be caught unawares," explains Lazare
Zoungrana, BFRC information officer. "When the first batch of returnees and other nationals arrived on 22 September 2002, our volunteers were on hand at the border town of Banfora to receive them." Ninety per cent of the displaced were children, women and the elderly who had travelled hundreds of kilometres, using motorbikes or bicycles.

Thousands of people have also fled into Liberia where they are now trapped in fighting between government forces and the LURD. "Although humanitarian organizations are putting the figure of those who have fled fighting in western Côte d'Ivoire to Liberia since November 2002 at over 70,000 we have been able to register over 30,000," explains Varfee Dorly, relief coordinator at the Liberian Red Cross Society. "Apart from Ivorian refugees and some third-country nationals, almost half of those we have received were Liberian returnees who had fled fighting in their country in the first place. They arrive tired, sick and confused."

The Guinean Red Cross Society (GRCS) has vast experience in offering emergency assistance to displaced persons. "We have assisted over 800,000 returnees and refugees since fighting first broke out in Liberia," says Belly Diallo, executive secretary of the GRCS. "We anticipated a massive influx of returnees and refugees from Côte d'Ivoire and that was why we set up our early warning groups known as GAPU, in collaboration with the International Federation and the ICRC." These groups of Red Cross volunteers are located in different entry points into Guinea where they alert the government, the Red Cross and other humanitarian agencies of the imminent influx of displaced people as well as the possibility of other humanitarian disasters.

The Guinean Red Cross's GAPU has become so effective that their services are now demanded by other humanitarian agencies that do not have volunteers on the ground. "I have assisted the UNHCR in accompanying Burkinabe refugees to their home country," explains GAPU member Balla Bamba with pride.

Children living with HIV/AIDS in Abidjan have participated in a local awareness campaign by painting prevention messages on walls throughout the city.

One crisis after another

One major humanitarian crisis emerging from the vast population movement as a result of the conflicts in the region, especially in Côte d'Ivoire, is the steady increase in sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV/AIDS prevalence. "As people flee from one country to another, there is a tendency for prostitution to increase as a means of survival. This has been the case in a refugee-hosting town which saw its HIV/AIDS prevalence rate rise from 2 per cent in 1992 to 7 per cent in 2002.

In the light of this potential humanitarian catastrophe, the International Federation's regional delegation in Abidjan has signed a working agreement with its UNAIDS counterpart to combat the disease at the regional level. The programme campaign will concentrate on helping people along the Abidjan-Accra-Lomé-Lagos road network where human traffic has tripled since the onset of the Ivorian crisis.

When will it end?

It is obvious that if the international community does not do more to stem the violence in Côte d'Ivoire, it will spiral out of control, dragging down the whole region. Already the humanitarian fallout from this crisis, as well as previous ones in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, has been massive with thousands of people dead and displaced.

Sadly for the moment, it appears that the answer to Arnaud Gahé's question —"When will West Africa know peace?" — is not for some time to come.


Tope Akinwande
Tope Akinwande is International Federation information officer in Abidjan.

The ICRC Abidjan assisted in the preparation of this article.


Interview with the president of the Red Cross Society of
Côte d'Ivoire

Mrs. Monique Coulibaly is president of the Red Cross Society of Côte d'Ivoire (CRCI) since 23 March 2002. She is experienced in the field of health education and has been involved in various social and public health projects in Côte d'Ivoire.

Where were you when the crisis in Côte d'Ivoire erupted in September 2002?
I was at ICRC headquarters in Geneva when I heard the news that a mutiny in the armed forces had spread to several towns in Côte d'Ivoire. I must admit I was shocked and distraught. There I was, far away from my fellow volunteers. Thanks to modern telecommunications, however, I was in hourly contact with the secretary-general and I instructed him to set our internal emergency plan in motion.

What measures has the Red Cross Society of Côte d'Ivoire taken since hostilities began?
The Red Cross Society of Côte d'Ivoire is facing the first armed crisis in its brief existence. Given our inexperience, the challenge seemed insurmountable. The National Society's 39 local branches were placed on full alert as the hostilities spread from one town to another. Above all, the leadership of the local branches was reminded of the obligation to maintain a strict neutrality and impartiality in all their actions.

Since 19 September 2002, Côte d'Ivoire has been split into the rebel-held north and government-controlled south. How do you cope with this situation?
It is a difficult task which requires constantly keeping in mind our principles and operational guidelines. The training of local Red Cross officials, both in rebel-held and in government-controlled areas, has meant fewer slip-ups by our volunteers. You'll always have some cases of inappropriate behaviour, which have occasionally cost someone's freedom, but overall we take care to preserve our cohesion of thought and action for the good of the victims.

It is important to keep the confidence of all the parties to the conflict. Both the governmental authorities and the insurgent parties are keen for us to bring relief and assistance to our fellow citizens in the conflict zones. They have welcomed our action.

How has it worked with the other components of the Movement?
From the outset, a tripartite committee was created bringing together the ICRC, the International Federation and the Côte d'Ivoire Red Cross.

In accordance with the Seville agreement, the ICRC has the lead role for the Movement's operations in the conflict zones, specifically in the north and west of the country, assisted by local Red Cross volunteers.

The International Federation has provided invaluable support to our efforts both in terms of logistics and capacity building at headquarters. The training of managerial staff has, in particular, helped us to improve our efficiency.

What are the needs of the civilian population in Côte d'Ivoire and how is the National Society responding to them?
The humanitarian needs are immense, but not to the same extent everywhere. In certain western parts, such as the Toulepleu region, the situation is truly catastrophic; many homes have been looted and their grain stores burned. Repeated surprise attacks have brought agricultural activity almost to a standstill. Few medical facilities are functional and hygiene conditions are especially worrying. It is an area where everything is lacking. Our volunteers have also encountered serious security problems. Let's not forget that four of them were killed in Toulepleu in January.

Similar problems exist, but to a lesser extent, in northern and central parts of the country. In Bouaké, volunteers are carrying out a variety of activities in the health, hygiene and nutrition fields for vulnerable people. On several occasions the National Society, in cooperation with the ICRC, has sent doctors to certain localities affected by the conflict. Often the National Society has had to step in and run these facilities while waiting for the health authorities or other NGOs to take over.

In the government-controlled zone, the massive displacement of several hundred thousand people has impacted on the host families. The purchasing power of these households has plummeted. When you realize that in certain districts, homes previously housing one family are now having to accommodate two or three more families, you can appreciate the many problems that can ensue. The host families need support so that displaced people are not left on the streets, with no one willing to take them in. An assistance policy for these families, based on clearly defined criteria, needs to be developed.

Closer to the front line, towns such as Yamoussoukro, San Pédro and Daloa have been inundated with displaced people, and the National Society has been particularly active in these areas. The tracing of missing people is also one of the many activities carried out by the National Society.

What lessons can the Côte d'Ivoire Red Cross Society of Côte d'Ivoire learn from its experiences in this conflict?
I was pleased to see the three components of the Movement working together. I have the feeling that it has brought us closer. We are also better organized internally. Lastly, the lack of resources has seriously hampered the activities of our local branches. The main lesson, I believe, is that you cannot do everything. You have to set priorities. Assistance must go first to those who have no other means of survival.

Interview by Simon Pluess, ICRC Abidjan.

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