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Towards peace in Casamance

A fragile peace is emerging in Casamance, after more than 20 years of conflict. Tens of thousands of people, driven from their villages by the fighting between the Senegalese army and separatist rebels, have now returned. The ICRC, with the support of the Senegalese Red Cross, is assisting in the recovery by improving water supply and sanitation in the devastated province.

‘‘If you ask me to talk about the conflict in Casamance, we’ll be here until tomorrow,” says a woman from Djibidione, a village lined with centuries- old kapok and mango trees situated about two hours drive from the provincial capital Ziguinchor. This “low-intensity” conflict, conducted away from the public eye, has taken a heavy toll on the population of Casamance, not least those who had to abandon their homes and belongings. Today, after a long absence, in Gambia or Guinea-Bissau, they are coming back.

In June 2004 an ICRC team assessed the humanitarian situation in the worst-affected villages in the north of Casamance, in cooperation with representatives of the government and different factions of the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance. What they found was catastrophic: families who had lost loved ones, homes destroyed, fields dried up, schools and health posts in ruins. On arrival in Djibidione, Henry Fournier, ICRC regional delegate in Dakar, found a village overwhelmed by the decades of violence. “While I was talking to the villagers, a bullock cart came by carrying a woman. She was deposited at the disused health post where she died soon afterwards,” he recounts.

Djibidione village, Senegal. Women working in the communal garden where a new well has been just opened. ©ICRC / Thierry Gassmann

Water and health

Since then, the ICRC has redoubled its efforts, launching an integrated assistance programme in the hardest-hit areas to revitalize agricultural activity and restore village health networks. Water and health go hand in hand and rely on the construction of wells, a central feature of the ICRC’s plan of action. Using local labour, communal wells are built close to health centres, while wells for market gardens are rehabilitated or dug on village outskirts. As a result, the population has clean water to drink, and the cultivation of vegetables and fruit (aubergines, tomatoes, sweet potatoes) is flourishing.

“With 40 wells to build and six health facilities to rehabilitate this year, we won’t be out of a job anytime soon,” says Nicolas Rossier, head of the ICRC operation in Casamance. “For each new well, we have to dig and equip a hole 25 metres deep, which takes five people 45 days to accomplish.” When you know that one hectare of market garden requires 80,000 litres of water a day, you have an idea of the importance of these wells. The water is also used to make bricks in banko (clay), an essential component in the reconstruction.

On the health side of things, the main emphasis is on restoring and reopening the vital health posts and maternity units serving the villages where thousands of people have been repatriated. Working closely with the Senegalese health authorities, the ICRC rehabilitates the facilities, supports the training of health personnel and supplies basic equipment and, occasionally, medicines. In Djondji, three-quarters of the population who had fled to the Gambia during the conflict have now returned. The health post has just been rehabilitated, and reconstruction of the maternity unit is in full swing, for which 5,000 bricks were made locally by the villagers.

Aliou Goudjabi, head nurse at the Djibidione health post since 2001, has been working in dire conditions for the past two years. “Health services are working pretty well,” he says. “Our number-one enemy now is malaria.” Treatment for the disease is expensive and prevention inadequate. The ICRC has launched an initiative to combat this scourge, in cooperation with the Senegalese Red Cross. Forty community health workers promote preventive measures in some 20 villages, accompanied by the sale of impregnated mosquito nets at a preferential rate for pregnant women and children. More than 15,000 people have already benefited from the programme.


Local customs and human dignity

With the return of peace, villagers and Red Cross facilitators gather in the shade of a baobab tree to talk at length about the suffering caused by armed violence and its relation to local customs promoting respect for human dignity. Notable among these customs are the sanctity of women and children, hospitality, the honour of the assisted person, the prohibition of acts of vengeance and respect for burial rites. Each gathering is accompanied by dance and theatre enabling the community to rediscover its traditional humanitarian practices and to see how they connect to the universal values and rules embodied in international humanitarian law. “We have had enough experts talking about human dignity in the comfort of their hotels,” says Ibrahima Tounkara, head of ICRC dissemination programmes. “Since human dignity is everyone’s concern, we felt it was useful to hold the discussion on these values here, among the village huts.”

Partnership and tradition

“The Diola tend to stick together and are suspicious of anything they do not do themselves,” says Antoine Grégoire Sagna, himself a Diola and a qualified agricultural engineer hired by the ICRC in Ziguinchor last year.

In the current transition period, the involvement of the local population in reconstruction efforts does not just make economic sense; it is a necessity if the war-ravaged province is to make a fresh start. Rebuilding together brings people together. When, after years of conflict and destruction, a former fighter-turned-bricklayer builds a wall or seals a gap, he regains the trust of the whole community.

Acting as an intermediary, when needed, in this still fragile environment, the ICRC is well aware of the importance of fostering contacts with all the different local actors — governor, rebel groups, village leaders, clergy, doctors, health workers — as well as with groups that share the same goals. Women are especially valuable partners, notably those who have formed market-gardening associations to manage the wells and the fields, as well as the highly effective Solidarity Committee of Women for Peace in Casamance (USOFORAL), whose approach is founded on repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation.

For its part, thanks to its many volunteers, the Senegalese Red Cross is playing an essential role in projects already under way and is endeavouring to consolidate its presence locally, a process made easier by the gradual return to normality in numerous villages previously off-limits. Red Cross groups are springing up in villages where many young people are eager to do something useful. The challenge for the ICRC is to support the development of these future Red Cross committees, both by giving them a productive role within its projects and by training the new recruits, with the help of the Senegalese Red Cross.

The participatory approach in Casamance has already made its mark: nearly 40,000 people have so far been assisted in some 20 villages. More projects benefitting more people are under way or planned, and efforts will continue until peace is in full bloom.

The ICRC, the Senegalese Red Cross Society and USOFORAL are leading a campaign to promote humanitarian norms and values through the exploration of traditional socio-cultural practices and customs in Casamance. ©ICRC / Thierry Gassmann

Jean-François Berger
Jean-François Berger is ICRC editor of Red Cross Red Crescent magazine.


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