Côte d’Ivoire: children caught up in the conflict

At about 11 am, we start loading the trucks with water carriers, soap, pristine white towels, brightly-coloured cloth to wrap babies in, detergent, toothbrushes, toothpaste, plastic cutlery, buckets and sleeping mats. We have enough supplies for 14 families who have been displaced due to the increasing violence in the city of Abidjan.

When we arrive in the town of Yopougon, the first thing that strikes me is the calm. Not what you might expect after several days of intermittent gunfire. But there are fewer people on the streets and fewer cars, taxis and mini-buses (gbaka) on the roads. The buses I do see are piled full of people.

It’s estimated that thousands of people left Abidjan in the past few days – that’s on top of more than 300,000 people who have already fled their homes in the city.

Most of the wooden stalls lining the sides of the street are empty and abandoned. My colleague tells me the markets are close to empty because “there isn’t anything left”.

Passing the checkpoints

Turning off the main street, we arrive at our first checkpoint, manned by a guy with a T-shirt tied over his face and holes cut out for the eyes and mouth. It’s impossible to tell how old he is. He waves us past without any problems and another man waves us on, this time with a smile and a very polite “good afternoon”.

The contrast between the two strikes me and I realise there is no formal system here. There is no organised group – it seems that it can be almost anyone who decides they want to start up a checkpoint, throw some obstacles in the road, and perhaps find a gun to give them a bit more authority. Luckily, these guys aren’t armed.

The man at the second checkpoint – about 30 meters down the road – reads out the logo on the side of our truck, “Save the Children. You’re here for the displaced people.” He waves us on too.

A third and final checkpoint also passes without any difficulties – here the two guys manning it are almost certainly children, somewhere between 15 and 17 years old. They visually prove the rumours that have been circulating about children being involved in the crisis. I was happy to see that the ones we came across were unarmed, but I know that this is not always the case.

A stark contrast

We arrive at the local meeting point – a small church on a side road. We bring the stock into the church, where it will stay until the local organisation we’re working with distributes it.  A small group of teenage girls walk in. The girls are from our partner organisation, and form part of the children and youth section. The girls ask what they can do to help. They work at community level and have a good idea of who is arriving and staying with which host families. They are also well-placed to speak to the newly-arrived children who’ve had to flee their homes.

What impresses me is their willingness to actively participate and contribute. This contrasts sharply to the children we saw manning the checkpoints, or the youths rushing to enrol in the armed forces to fight the rebels and demanding Kalashnikovs.

Save the Children has an important role to play here.  We’re on the right track, providing support to displaced children and families, but we need to keep our eyes and ears open – and so does the rest of the world. Children are at serious risk of being associated with armed forces or groups, and we need to do our part to make sure this doesn’t happen.

We also need to encourage more initiatives for the children wanting to do their part to help, like the girls working with our partner organisation.

There is a lot of work to do. We can’t let the children of Côte d’Ivoire down.

Blog by Annie Bodmer-Roy, Save the Children Canada.

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