Ivory Coast: refugees still fear returning home


People displaced by the post-election violence in Ivory Coast. Eight months after the violence ended, many are still afraid to return to their homes.


Philippe Desmazes

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Eight months after this country's post-election violence ended, hundreds of thousands of people still have not returned home.

“We aren’t moving,” said Nestor Goa, at a displaced persons' camp just nine miles from Abidjan, Ivory Coast's largest city. 

Goa sat under a shelter on the sloped grassy grounds of the grand Harriste church along with others who fled the conflict last spring. Behind them were rows of white tents from the United Nations refugee agency.

The camp manager has just told the people living here they'll have to vacate the premises soon, by order of President Alassane Ouattara's government. Camp residents sit on benches under the shelter looking despondent. A woman stares off into space, her toddler pulling at her skirt.

More: Race to save the chimps

“They didn’t put the tents up, so how can they take them down? This is a religious community. We are on church property,” Goa said. “They can’t kick us out.”

But government officials said the camps make the country look bad.

“We have to close the camps because they do not do honor to our country,” said Laurent Glaou, inspector general of the government ministry responsible for refugees and the displaced. “It’s true that we went through a very hard period. People were killing their brothers, and people temporarily found themselves in this situation [of displacement], but there comes a time when we have to exit this situation.”

Despite government pleas for the displaced to return home, the camps have remained crowded.

At the Harriste church the numbers rose this fall as landlords evicted the displaced from other sites. Many also relocated to camps after wearing out their welcome with host families. 

The great majority of those displaced within Ivory Coast are living with host families, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Last year former president Laurent Gbagbo refused to cede power to internationally recognized winner Alassane Ouattara. Violence broke out after the November election and the national army and pro-Gbagbo militias clashed with pro-Ouattara fighters. About 1 million people were displaced by the conflict.

About half that number returned home by mid-October, according to humanitarian organizations. Yet “conditions for sustainable returns had not been met,” the rights groups reported. As of late November, some 156,000 refugees remained in Liberia and about 16,000 in Ghana, according to the UN refugee agency. About 170,000 remained displaced inside Ivory Coast. Ivory Coast's total population is 20 million.

More: Gbagbo spirited to The Hague

Under pressure from the government, the International Organization for Migration began organizing the return of displaced people from the Catholic Mission in Duekoue in western Ivory Coast in late November. They began by moving 459 individuals who were ready to leave.

Many are excited to return to their villages, the IOM reported.

“I think I will do better by returning to my village”, one of the returnees told the organization. “Life in the camp has been good because it has provided us with security. Now things are better, I need to go home and re-build my life for the sake of my children.”

But not everyone feels it is possible to return home.

“We are ready to go back, but how can we?” asked Goa, who came to Harriste church with his wife and five children on March 20 as war broke out on Abidjan’s streets. He says his photography studio was destroyed and his equipment stolen during the conflict and he has no livelihood to go back to in Abidjan.

Other camp residents echoed the same sentiment. Looters ransacked Jonas Djole’s home before he fled his neighborhood with his wife and three children. “You need money to rebuild a life,” he said, adding that his children have not gone to school for a year. “But we are better off here than in our homes.”

Of the displaced people interviewed by Oxfam, the Danish Refugee Council and Care, 82 percent have completely lost their source of income.

But lack of money is not the only thing keeping the displaced from returning home.

Insecurity and violence persists, particularly in western Ivory Coast. On Oct. 13, a violent incident between farmers and security forces resulted in the displacement of 450 people in the western town of Issia.

One week in early November four people died in the west in violent clashes between inhabitants and armed men — traditional hunters and members of the Republican Forces of Ivory Coast, or FRCI, composed mostly of poorly trained former rebels.

UN spokesman Hamadoun Touré said he is “concerned at the security situation on certain roads in the west and north of the country, where the activities of some illegally armed groups have given rise to severe human rights violations.”

Many of those displaced from their villages in the west have also missed the planting season. Others report their farms were taken over during their absence. Many risk hunger if they leave a camp without humanitarian assistance.

The World Food Program is therefore offering food not only to those displaced but also to returnees. They plan to reach some 170,000 people at risk of food insecurity until the end of the year.

Fear of reprisal attacks has also kept refugees wary of returning.

Nearly 100 miles from Abidjan, at Ampaim refugee camp in Ghana's remote southwest, thousands pack onto 24 acres.

The large majority of the refugees in Ghana come from areas geographically or ethnically allied with former President Laurent Gbagbo. While many of those who fought for Ouattara have been incorporated into the new national army, many pro-Gbagbo fighters fled the country last spring fearing reprisal attacks.

Some at Ampaim are ex-combattants, says Ante Galic, a field officer with the UN refugee agency who helps run the camp.

"You have to be really careful. You don't know who is who," said a young man named Aka, as he walked around the muddy grounds of the camp, surrounded by thick jungle. None of the men interviewed at Ampaim agreed to share their full names.

Another refugee at Ampaim who only identified himself as Felix says he has no plans to return to Ivory Coast. When asked why he cannot return to Abidjan, he chuckles uncomfortably, then replies: "Yopougon," the name of the pro-Gbagbo neighborhood he is from that saw heavy fighting during the crisis. He won’t say more.

A young man who only wanted to be identified as L.K. said that it is not safe for him to return home, either. “I am already targeted,” he said in September. Some of L.K.’s Facebook "friends" have written threatening messages on his wall like, "We don't want you back here," and "You're lucky to still be alive," he said.

“I'm not at all ready to go back,” said L.K. “Maybe in five, 10 years.”

Still, international organizations are working to facilitate returns, and some 3,000 people have returned from Ghana in the past few months.

In Ivory Coast’s long-troubled west, IOM is rehabilitating hundreds of houses in some of the areas worst affected by the conflict and has organized several “go-and-see visits” for displaced people to see their villages and decide if they want to go back.

Many are seeing that living conditions in their home villages have “steadily improved,” the organization reported. But with the displaced only trickling back, the Ouattera government will have to grapple with its country's post-crisis image into next year.