Page last updated at 13:56 GMT, Thursday, 10 March 2011

Ivory Coast's descent into 'madness'

A ransacked house belonging to an Alassane Ouattara supporter
The UN estimates more than 350,000 people have fled Abidjan

By John James
BBC News, Abidjan

A bitterly disputed election result in the Ivory Coast is pulling the country apart and has left the country divided.

The thick mahogany doors of the mansion stand ajar as young children run in and out.

A trail of odd junk litters the yard. A small upturned table here, papers there. The walls blackened by fire. A palatial home, ransacked earlier by youths.

The police had been there already, eyewitnesses said - not to stop the theft, but to load up their vehicles with the loot.

An estimated 20 homes belonging to government ministers and their supporters were attacked last weekend in Abidjan.

The mistake these politicians made was to win November's election, and then to insist that winning a vote meant you get to take over.

The former president did not like that. The new government may be able to shelter under UN protection at a lagoon-side hotel, but their homes, cars and families are fair game for the old government.

Destructive rage

This was a part of Africa that did not need handouts to develop, just a few decent politicians.

A man shouts next to burning tires on the streets of Abidjan
Anger is rife on the streets of Abidjan

Instead it has seen a race to the bottom for power at any price, with the very real threat of a return to civil war.

Ivorians witness the destruction with shock and incredulity.

My friend Bernard's work is linked to the port. He has lost his job - as has everyone at his company - because almost nothing is being shipped anymore.

Another friend, Aude, has lost her job running a restaurant - few people eat out any more, in what was once one of Africa's culinary capitals. The central bank closed a month and a half ago, private banks two weeks ago.

The destructive rage is almost a madness.


Attacking mosques in a country roughly divided half-and-half between Muslims and Christians who until now were living peacefully side by side.

Emptying the army ammunition stores to hand out Kalashnikovs to unemployed youths whipped up into anger by their patrons' propaganda.

Each side is using foreign mercenaries, then accusing the other side of using foreign support.

At one of the city's many checkpoints, I am ordered out of the car as young men with guns search for weapons.

They say they are doing their civic duty by blocking the flow of arms. But I have never heard of them finding any and the only civilians illegally carrying arms I have seen were the ones running the roadblocks.

Both sides have burnt their victims alive. "You burn one, we'll burn 10," said one Gbagbo supporter at a barricade in Yopougon.

A generation ago if you asked a West African to think of a country that meant stability and prosperity, the answer would have been Ivory Coast

In one chilling video, a pile of bodies writhe in pain after a beating. Burning tyres and tables are placed on top of them to form an evening bonfire. The police - clearly in shot, actually help out the crowd.

Images of the violence, taken with mobile phone cameras, are everywhere.

At the moment the internet offers up a daily collection of horrors from Ivory Coast - the families burned during an attack on their village, the women out protesting peacefully for change mown down by canon fire from a convoy of government vehicles leaving seven dead, armed youths threatening death to the other side.

A map of the Ivory Coast

Tens of thousands have fled Ivory Coast, as the pro-Ouattara forces in the north start to move south.

In Abidjan, an armed group in the northern suburb of Abobo, nicknamed the "invisible commandos", has made the district a virtual no-go area for the national security forces, which are still publicly loyal to Laurent Gbagbo.

This so-called "autonomous republic of Abobo" is a telling sign that - even with far superior weaponry - the pro-Gbagbo forces struggle to control their own main city.

The UN says at least 200,000 have fled the district, many taking shelter with families elsewhere, others in churches and mosques.

A generation ago if you asked a West African to think of a country that meant stability and prosperity, the answer would have been Ivory Coast.

At one prayer meeting I hear a woman cry out to God for a return to the times when this was a land of hospitality and peace.

This is the country where I work, but it is also now home. I have lived here for more than three years.

My wife is Ivorian, and only recently I picked up my own Ivorian passport. At the same time I bought a house.

This remains a place of friendly people, amazing fresh fruit, long and unspoilt tropical beaches, and, yes, it ought to have a bright future.

But at the moment, the place is being held hostage, and there seem to be more atrocities committed every day. I wonder when my family should evacuate. The dark clouds seem to be gathering.

Ivorians wanted one president but they got two, they wanted peace and they got war, they were promised debt relief, but instead the country defaulted on its debt, they wanted prosperity and the economy shut down.

There is an important word here that I have never found the equivalent for in English - "Yako". It is a deeply-felt way of saying, "I'm so sorry".

Ivory Coast, "Yako".

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