Ivory Coast refugees rebuild shattered lives

Men, women and children left their birthplaces for the first time to foreign lands, with little money and no relatives to depend on.

Ivory Coast refugees rebuild shattered lives

World Bulletin/News Desk

When former president Laurent Gbagbo was arrested on April 11, 2011 after weeks of fighting with supporters of newly elected president Alassane Ouattara, many Gbagbo loyalists fled to neighbouring countries for fear of reprisal.

Men, women and children left their birthplaces for the first time to foreign lands, with little money and no relatives to depend on.

Keeping safe from bullets and bombs was all they were thinking of.

Trouble began in February of that year when Gbagbo refused to step down after losing the country's 2010 presidential runoff to Ouattara.

This sparked an armed conflict between a former rebel group loyal to Ouattara and Gbagbo's loyalist soldiers and militiamen.

More than 3000 people were killed in the violence, according to the United Nations and human rights groups.

About 300,000 Ivorian refugees were already living in Liberia, Ghana, Togo and Benin by the time Ouattara was sworn in in May 2011, according to the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR).

But three years on, normalcy has been restored and thousands of refugees have returned to pick up the pieces of their former lives.

The Help Service and Assistance to Refugees and Stateless Persons (SAARA), set up by the Ivorian Foreign Ministry, has contributed massively to the voluntary return of nearly 230,000 refugees to date, offering them transportation and basic needs upon their arrival.

Most returnees said they had decided to come back after the security situation had improved.

"I was living under a dome tent in Liberia with four children aged between five and 14," 41-year-old Loboue Jacklyne, who returned in March to her village in western Ivory Coast, told Anadolu Agency.

"Food and medicine were scarce commodities; we felt we had no future there," she said.

"We decided to come home so my kids could return to school and I could go back to selling in the market," added Jacklyne, who has yet to find her husband who was unable to flee the fighting.

The worst atrocities of the 2011 crisis had occurred in the western part of the country.

Rehoused

Traditional hunters known as "Dozo" – who had earlier fought alongside pro-Ouattara forces – still occupy most of the farmland originally owned by refugees who continue to wait for authorities to help them recover their plantations.

According to Gbagbo's Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), which is now the country's main opposition party, most returning refugees had found their homes occupied by soldiers – or completely stripped of their doors, windows and roofs.

A special committee set up by the Ivorian Defence Ministry is responsible for the restitution of occupied homes to returning refugees, but owners lament the despoiled state of their property.

"More than 100 homes have been handed back to their owners; some were not looted like they say," committee coordinator Col. Ehoussou Aka told AA.

"We are still working to free all the occupied homes so that the rightful owners can have access to their property. That is the desire of the government," Aka said.

A source at the Employment Ministry confirmed to AA that most refugees had returned to their work in the public sector and were getting their monthly salaries like everyone else.

Gbagbo's son Michel, who spent nearly three years in jail after being arrested alongside his father, now lectures at Ivory Coast's largest university in Abidjan, where he used to work before the 2011 crisis.

No trust

However, a tinge of suspicion still prevails between the authorities and returning refugees, especially in strategic sectors like the armed forces and finance.

"Most top positions in the country are given to people seen as supporters of President Ouattara or his allied party members, the Democratic Party of Côte d'Ivoire," Bernard Dodou, a political science lecturer at Ivory Coast's second largest university in Bouake, told AA.

"Perhaps the authorities feel the returned refugees who are close to the former president could sabotage the jobs if they are appointed, while the refugees feel they are being neglected because they belong to the opposition," he said.

About 70,000 Ivorian refugees remain scattered across the West African region, with most unwilling to come back, according to SAARA.

Some refugees interviewed by AA by phone from Ghana said they would wait until after 2015 presidential polls to make a decision.

The authorities on Thursday freed 150 opposition prisoners and unfroze the bank accounts of 50 opposition members in a bid to ease political tensions and foster political reconciliation.

Close to 1000 people, civilian and military, were arrested after the 2011 post-election crisis, which saw nearly 3000 people killed.

The arrestees were sent to prison facilities in the northern Ivory Coast, but none were put on trial.

More than 100 prisoners from the opposition were freed early this year, while close to another 100 were released between 2012 and 2013. But the opposition and human rights groups say about 700 more remain in detention.

State Prosecutor Richard Christophe Adou also announced Thursday that the bank accounts of 50 opposition members had been unfrozen.

The authorities had blocked the accounts of 300 Gbagbo supporters in 2011 on grounds that the latter had been "financing subversive activities" – allegations the FPI denies.

In April, 43 bank accounts belonging to top FPI members were unfrozen in a move N'guessan described as a meager gesture.

Last Mod: 27 Mayıs 2014, 12:07
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