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
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.
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
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
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
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
"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 is International Federation information officer
The ICRC Abidjan assisted in the preparation
of this article.
with the president of the Red Cross Society of
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
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
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
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
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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