Fear of civil war pervades Ivory Coast

Attacks, harassment of migrants and Muslims are on the increase

December 05, 2004|By Robyn Dixon | Robyn Dixon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast - In the ghetto called Sans Fil, the raw sewage in the streets is ankle deep and flies swirl about, but the people glow with joie de vivre. Abdrahman Guindo sits in front of his tiny home in the muggy heat, watching the throbbing river of life.

He is wearing extravagant diamante baggy pants of silver and white eyelet fabric, with matching shoes specially made for the Eid festival at the end of Ramadan. Guindo watches small girls in gauzy party dresses and glowing women in long, fancy gowns picking their way delicately through the smelly black mud.

The squalor may be suffocating, but as people are fond of saying in Ivory Coast, "We stand tall."

"Ivory Coast is paradise. Write it down," said Guindo's brother, Cool B, a young man from the Koumassi slum district of Abidjan, who stays up all night writing scripts and dreams of making it as a filmmaker. "People have to be proud."

But here, perhaps more than many places, pride and identity are intertwined, and the country's identity as the miraculously prosperous and stable leader of West Africa is no more.

There are some distinctly nasty elements to what President Laurent Gbagbo calls Ivory Coast's final transition to democracy, including xenophobia and harassment of migrants and Muslims from the country's north, who live in areas such as Sans Fil and Koumassi in the south.

A decade ago, ruling politicians even coined a term to justify their chauvinistic policies: "Ivoirete," or "Ivorianness."

Already, one civil war has been fought over "Ivoirete," when northerners, frustrated by rampant discrimination, rebelled in 2002. Now the country, a former French colony, is poised to erupt in conflict again.

And despite a recent blaze of fury against French peacekeepers and civilians, the real battle lines are along the same divide.

Here in the predominantly Christian south, the identity of northerners or immigrants is always in question, even if they have a sheaf of certificates going back as far as grandparents' birth registrations. Police cruise around checking IDs, harassing those with northern or foreign names, asking questions like, "What kind of name is that?"

Guindo, a car trader whose family migrated from the north, has to carry a wad of papers with him, ready to answer questions on the birth village of a grandfather he never knew. But sometimes, traveling in other West African countries, he leaves the fat envelope of documents in his hotel room and walks around without them, a private act of liberation. He hopes his son can escape too, but for good.

"Since `Ivoirete' is still here in the Ivorian vocabulary, our children can't go ahead," said Guindo, who wants his son to immigrate to Europe some day. "I'm afraid that `Ivoirete' is stuck fast in our society. When you talk about the war today, it's just about `Ivoirete.'"+

For 33 years after independence from France in 1960, Ivory Coast under President Felix Houphouet-Boigny was not total paradise - opposition parties were banned until 1990 - but it was prosperous and stable. The country attracted significant French investment and drew thousands of West African immigrants to work the cocoa and coffee plantations. But political instability followed his death in 1993, including a coup in 1999 and a civil war in 2002.

There's still a touch of faded magic in Abidjan, where the lush growth of coconut palms and bougainvillea tumbles down to the shores of the lagoon. Lizards scuttle in the steaming heat; vendors sell pineapples and street cafes serve fried fish with green chili pickle and stewed onion.

But Guindo is fearful about the future.

"I think there will be civil war. It will be the end, because we don't know where we could go."

In such a war, identity could be a death warrant. But for many now it is just a daily curse. Adama Sonde, 32, was denied his identity two years ago. A two-year legal struggle has not recovered all the things he lost the day the authorities took away his ID.

"I lost everything," he said. He lost the only good job he ever had, running his own radio show. He lost Elizabeth, the one true love of his life, who broke off their engagement because he had no money. He still loves her, he said, even though she went to Italy to marry an Italian who could buy her clothes and trinkets.

Police came to the radio station in August 2002 as he was writing his script for the evening show, took him and two others away and locked them up for the weekend. A court refused to accept family birth certificates going back to his grandfather that showed he had been born in the north, and he was jailed for two months on charges that he had falsified his ID documents.

He was fired because of the conviction and, without any ID, is still unemployed. He rarely leaves his room, knowing he will be harassed by police for not having identification papers.

He still keeps Elizabeth's photo, and says that, in his heart, "she's my wife." And he is determined to clear his name in the courts so his life can begin again.

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