Ivory Coast –The entrance to the morgue is like a mouth through which comes an awful smell. It hits you as far back as the parking lot and makes your eyes water. From a dozen yards away, it’s strong enough to make you throw up.
What lies inside is proof of mass killings in this once-tranquil country of 21 million, where the sitting president is refusing to give way to his successor. Nearly every day since Laurent Gbagbo was declared the loser of the Nov. 28 election, the bodies of people who voted for his opponent have been showing up on the sides of highways.
Their distraught families have gone from police station to police station looking for them, but the bodies are hidden in plain sight in morgues turned into mass graves. Records obtained by The Associated Press from four of the city’s nine morgues show that at least 113 bullet-ridden bodies have been brought in since the election. The number is likely much higher because the AP was refused access to the five other morgues, including one where the United Nations believes as many as 80 bodies were taken.
The bodies are being held hostage and not released to families. Morgue workers say government minders are stationed outside to monitor what goes in or out.
A list of the dead that the AP was allowed to see on the laptop of a company that manages three downtown morgues shows the bodies began arriving Dec. 1, the night the country’s electoral commission was due to announce that opposition leader Alassane Ouattara had won. The AP also saw legal documents from authorities instructing funeral homes to pick up bodies found on public roads, and the paperwork handed to families.
The names of the dead indicate they are largely Muslim and from the country’s north, the demographic that voted in largest numbers for Ouattara, himself a Muslim from the north.
“The overwhelming number of victims of political violence in Abidjan were either real or perceived supporters of Ouattara,” said Human Rights Watch senior researcher Corinne Dufka, the author of a report on the post-election violence. “Many were picked up and killed simply on the basis of their family name.”
Families have been allowed inside the morgues only long enough to identify their relatives, if at all. They cannot take their loved ones for burial because the government, still controlled by Gbagbo, has not given the go-ahead for autopsies on bodies with bullet wounds. Funeral home directors say the procedure is normally approved within 48 hours.
Diaby Madoussou, 40, has been waiting for two months. She found her husband lying face down on the pavement where he had taken part in a march to support Ouattara, recognized internationally as the winner of the vote. Ouattara now lives in a hotel under 24-hour United Nations protection, its lobby crowded with supporters taking refuge.
Madoussou turned over her husband’s body. He had been shot twice in the ribs.
She took off her pagne and used the wraparound skirt to cover him. She waited beside him wearing only her underclothes until the morgue sent a car to pick up the body. They handed her a ‘fiche d’entree,’ or entry sheet stating that his body would be stored in vault No. 50 in a morgue in the outlying suburb of Anyama.
“They told me that I need to leave the body there. At the morgue. They say I need to wait … I don’t understand. Why won’t they let me take him?” said Madoussou, who has five children. She now spends her days on the floor, her back against the concrete wall of her living room, her eyes staring at the other wall.
Many families have only this piece of paper to prove that their loved ones were killed, because police stations are refusing to file police reports. Dozens of victims were seen dragged from their homes and forced into official vehicles.
Gbagbo’s government has denied committing any abuses. However, assistant state prosecutor Jean-Claude Aboya conceded that autopsies have not been conducted.
“We’re aware of these bodies in the morgues,” said Aboya. “The chief prosecutor has told us that there will be an investigation, but he’s holding off until things are calmer before proceeding.”
Bodies have also been found on highways, freeway medians and trash heaps, and in the lagoons coursing through this palm-lined commercial capital that was once considered among the most stable in Africa.
It has been anything but that since Gbagbo came to power 10 years ago. He signed an alphabet soup of treaties named after the numerous capitals from Lome to Pretoria to Ouagadougou where mediators tried to coax Gbagbo to hold an election. He succeeded in pushing back the election for five years until it was finally held last fall.
In the meantime, a civil war broke out and the country’s lagoon-side cafes emptied out. The fighting pitted northerners who wanted Gbagbo out against southerners who supported him.
Now the shores of the glassy lagoon lap up trash. The few cafe clients left are nearly all men, because those who could sent their wives abroad to shield them from the waves of political violence that crash down on this Italy-sized country every time Gbagbo feels cornered.
A confidential 2004 United Nations report obtained by the AP detailed the rise of government death squads that in 2002 started carrying out ‘disappearances’ of people seen as threats to Gbagbo. The United Nations obtained a video cassette showing as many as 200 cadavers strewn across the road in one locality.
There was a ripple of hope when the election finally went ahead, especially after Gbagbo promised to abide by results issued by the electoral commission. As soon as results began trickling in, however, foreign TV stations were ordered off the air, and the head of the commission began receiving death threats.
The first bodies to be registered at one downtown morgue were unidentified. They all appear in the morgue’s records as ‘Mr. X.’
Thirty-eight-year-old Abdoulaye Coulibaly, who worked for a political nonprofit aligned with Ouattara, was in an open-air restaurant when soldiers surrounded it.
“They started to shoot and people started running,” said his cousin, who pieced together what happened from other clients. Coulibaly was grabbed along with a colleague and put in the truck. “To this day, there is no trace of him … We searched everywhere,” said the cousin, Moussa Coulibaly.
The death squads made repeated trips to Abobo, a majority Muslim suburb that voted in large numbers for Ouattara. Gbagbo is an evangelical Christian who is accused of having purged Muslims from the armed forces.
The men came to Amidou Ouattara’s house early in the morning.
“It was on the 13th of December. At 5:30 a.m. He was coming back from having done his morning prayer, and there were already two cars parked in front. A 4-by-4. And a Mercedes,” said relative Mouriba Ouattara. “They surrounded him and put him in the Mercedes. It was gray. No plates.'”
“We looked everywhere. I went to the morgue at Yopougon. To the one in Anyama. Treichville. We turned over all the bodies,” he said. “But we did not see his.”
The United Nations estimates that more than 100 people have disappeared and at least 296 have been killed, based on calls to a U.N. hotline from family members. They cannot investigate because Gbagbo ordered the U.N. to leave the country after it certified Ouattara’s victory.
The hotline also received reports of a mass grave containing between 60 to 80 bodies in the suburb of Ndottre. The U.N. twice tried to get to the site but was blocked by the army, and at one point military trucks chased the U.N. convoy at high speed. Witnesses later called to say they saw the bodies being moved to the morgue of Anyama, which the U.N. was not allowed to enter.
“The fact that we have been prevented twice from conducting a fact-finding mission in Ndottre and Anyama suggests that there may be some truth in the alleged existence of a mass grave in that area and/or deposit of 60 to 80 corpses at a mortuary in Anyama,” wrote the head of the U.N.’s human rights division in an internal report leaked to the AP.
The AP attempted multiple times to gain access to the principal morgues, only to be refused entry. On one attempt, the reporter was told she would need an ‘authorization letter,’ but nobody could say from whom.
Workers at the morgues who agreed to speak were visibly panicked and would only do so away from their place of work. They said the bodies are quickly deteriorating because they have not yet been embalmed, a procedure done after the autopsy. One morgue director said so many corpses are arriving that they have created a ‘salle de catastrophe,’ or catastrophe room, to hold the overflow.
At one funeral home, a man in plainclothes interrupted a reporter’s conversation with an employee to ask why she was there. He loitered until she left, appearing to confirm reports that the facilities are under government surveillance.
With hardly anybody allowed in and no bodies allowed out of the morgue, families are left to grieve however they can.
When the morgue took her husband’s body away, Madoussou kept his blood-splattered sneakers. Unable to wash her husband’s body, as is the custom before burial here, the widow washes and re-washes his shoes instead.
She has washed them so many times that they are as white as snow.