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Last Updated:  Friday, 14 March, 2003, 17:51 GMT
Ivory Coast's identity crisis
Joan Baxter
By Joan Baxter
In rebel-held Ivory Coast

Joan Baxter meets one young fighter and finds out what motivated him to join the country's rebel movement.

With his big, boyish grin that hardly ever goes away, Ablo doesn't look like a killer. And talking non-stop - as he has been since he leapt in the back seat of our old Land Cruiser this morning - he doesn't sound like one either.

A power-sharing deal has been struck
Many rebels are still battling with government forces
There is that Kalashnikov he's hugging between his knees, but I prefer to ignore that as we jostle along the muddy track leading to the west of Ivory Coast.

Ablo is along to protect me in the part of the country they call the Wild West. Here, rebels and forces loyal to President Gbagbo are still battling it out for control. Liberian fighters have crossed over the border to join the fray.

So far, the only protection Ablo has had to provide is against the hungry and heavily armed rebel youth manning uncountable checkpoints on this miserable little road.

They think I should give them money. Ablo says no, and to make his point, at one checkpoint began firing his Kalashnikov into the air. I asked him to desist. For a moment or two, his grin turned sheepish.

On the positive side, he's turned out to be a regular talking book, helping to pass the four hours we've spent travelling 80 km. Without asking a single question, I've learned that he is 27-years-old, born and raised in the cocoa-rich southwest of Ivory Coast, to parents who migrated here from impoverished Burkina Faso to the north.

Embittered

His parents - like millions of other migrant workers from poorer neighbouring countries - settled in desolate villages around the cocoa plantations. For 30 years, they toiled to produce the cocoa that turned Ivory Coast into West Africa's economic success story.

Ablo says for a while it seemed he might escape the fate of other migrant workers. At school he excelled and he also turned out to be a very talented distance runner. In 1998 he won the marathon in a national competition, prompting the Ivorian sports federation to try to obtain for him Ivorian citizenship.

A unified administration is intended to end six months of civil war
President Laurent Gbagbo leaves peace talks with rebel leaders
This would have allowed him to study on scholarship at a college and run marathons as a citizen of Ivory Coast. They failed. The trouble was this thing called "Ivorieté", which Ablo says Mr Gbagbo came up with long before he became president. Ivorieté means that you can't be a citizen unless both your parents and all your grandparents are or were Ivorian.

This neatly excludes the millions of immigrants who have lived for generations in this country, also anyone with a parent bearing a foreign name, sometimes a northern name. So Ablo's dreams of an education and athletic glory were dashed and he found himself back in cocoa country, driving a lorry.

When the rebellion began last September, his family fled to Burkina Faso, and Ablo joined the rebels, along with tens of thousands of other young men and women embittered by what years of what they see as discrimination against northerners and migrants. Although Ablo doesn't actually sound bitter, just very, very determined.

When we reach the Sassandra River, a beautiful sweep of deep green water with wooden canoes lining the shores, he launches into lurid tales of the fighting that took place here back in December.

'Cleansing'

It was his greatest battle, he says. He can't count how many loyalist soldiers he killed that day. When it was over and the rebels had won, the river had turned red with blood and it was clogged with bodies of fallen loyalists and their mercenary allies - Angolans and South Africans, he says.

French peacekeeper in Ivory Coast
There are still almost 3,000 French troops in the country
He killed so much that he was sent to a spiritual healer for "cleansing" - not once, but twice.

From the bridge, I take in the tranquil beauty of the river, the majestic forest along its banks, then glance back at Ablo. I ask him what he feels when he kills. "Nothing," he replies. "I don't have any feelings any more. Killing has become like eating for me."

There's that same boyish smile. He fingers a narrow leather strip wrapped around his neck like a snake, another around his wrist. He says these talismans make him invincible on the battlefield and, when he wants, invisible.

I ask him how he thinks it will all end, with so many young people on either side of the ceasefire line armed and lusting after battle, kept apart only by 3,000 French troops. Ablo replies that there is only one ending. He says he is fed up with the rebel leaders negotiating endlessly for peace.

Peace, he says, can be had only when President Gbagbo is gone. He says he and all his comrades joined up to remove the president by force and they won't back down until they've finished the job.

Then, as if to himself, he adds: "I haven't killed enough yet". He is no longer grinning.


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