Having previously lived here, I noticed differences even before arriving into Abidjan, the largest city in Cote d’Ivoire. On the plane from Paris to Abidjan, more than half the seats were empty due to increasing violence and instability caused by the disputed elections in November 2010.
At the Canadian airport I departed from, I happened to run into a very well known Ivorian reggae artist who had just performed in Montreal, my hometown. He’s known for his political views and his calls for the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, to leave his position of power. Like many people I’ve spoken to in the past two weeks back home, he was surprised to hear I was heading back to Abidjan now.
Up to 300,000 people have already fled their homes in Abidjan, with many more planning to go back to their family villages as soon as they can get the means to travel safely out of the city.
Once I arrived in Abidjan, our driver sent me to Residence 1 – a house of another colleague deemed safer than my previous home in the city that I’ve been living in for the past two years. In part this is because it’s easier to evacuate staff who are grouped together in a residence, and in part this is because my previous apartment is in a building shared by many staff from the UN mission, which in the past few months has increasingly been targeted by televised broadcasts accusing the UN of siding with a former rebel group.
Driving to the office later that morning, I notice even more checkpoints have been set up around the city, extending to the neighbourhood where our office is located. Indeed, on the road heading into the office, a new checkpoint is being manned by armed men in civilian clothes. It’s not clear if these are security forces in civilian clothing or if they are armed civilians.
Arriving in the office, I met with colleagues who have started distributing basic household and hygiene items to some of the hundreds of thousands of people who have been displaced in the past few weeks due to mounting armed violence.
We estimate that there are 70,000 people in the west of the country who have fled their homes, and around 70, 000 have fled across the border to Liberia. The need is overwhelming.
Together with other international humanitarian agencies, we aren’t yet reaching half of the displaced populations in and around Abidjan. Part of this is due to difficulties in identifying those who have fled their homes due to the ongoing conflict and who are now staying with host families. If they are living with families, one of the main obstacles we face is accessing the areas where they are staying.
The security situation remains extremely volatile, with gunshots, mortar shells and exploding grenades heard daily, even from the designated safe area I am currently living and working in.
Just yesterday, six mortar shellings in Abobo killed or maimed up to 100 people according to the UN. Abobo, an area in the city that has seen the heaviest casualties in the past weeks, supports Ouattara, who claimed to have won the 2010 election, and whose claims were internationally recognized, but not accepted by Laurent Gbagbo, precipitating the ongoing crisis. At least 435 people have died so far in the violence.
Children want their normal lives back
So throughout all of the tension, how are children coping? Despite the difficulties in moving around safely Abidjan, we have started responding to the needs of children and their families, and been speaking to children to get an accurate idea of their needs during the current crisis.
The children we’ve spoken to are scared and miss their friends. They want to go back to school and get their normal lives back. One boy told us of how had to travel through a forest in Abidjan to reach safety, because there was too much fighting in his old neighborhood. A seven year-old girl we spoke to walked with her family through the bush to get to safety, carrying her belongings in a bag and her little brother on her back. These families have lost so much. We’re doing whatever we can to make sure they can retain their dignity, keep their children warm and clean, and are able to prepare their own food.
We are starting our third week of aid distributions. As we step up our coordination with other agencies, we’re working to see how we can get the most needed materials – food, blankets, medicines, cooking materials, soap and detergent, and other necessities – to families that have fled their homes. We have reached hundreds of families so far – 258 in Abidjan and around 300 families in the west of the country.
Although there are lots of challenges ahead, it’s great to see our staff out there and working with determination and dedication to meet the needs of these children and their families.
Blog by Annie Bodmer-Roy, Save the Children Canada.