ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast –Teams of Red Cross workers shoveled charred corpses into bags in Ivory Coast’s main city Thursday while U.N. peacekeepers gathered weapons hidden in basements, throwing them into dump trucks for disposal.
More than a week of heavy fighting turned a city once known as the Paris of West Africa into one of deprivation, fear and death. The urban warfare culminated in the arrest on Monday of strongman Laurent Gbagbo. Now President Alassane Ouattara’s first order of business is to get Abidjan functioning again.
Now that fighting has reduced and even the most hardcore Gbagbo supporters have given up after having seen TV images of the former president in custody, the people of Abidjan have begun to leave their homes for the first time in over two weeks. Orange taxis zigzag between the bullet-riddled wrecks of tanks and the charred carcasses of their occupants left after days of bloody battles.
“We need to secure the country, notably Abidjan,” Ouattara said at his first press conference on Wednesday. “There are still arms caches, but we will get rid of them with our allied forces … These weapons will be gathered and burned.”
U.N. spokesman Hamadoun Toure said Thursday that dozens of U.N. vehicles went through Abidjan as part of a peace parade led by U.N. peacekeeping mission head, Choi Young-jin.
“We are doing a peace parade throughout the city to assess the improvement in the security situation. We are encouraging people to return to normal,” he said.
In some areas, violence continued. A resident of Micao in the industrial zone of Abidjan’s Yopougon suburb said Thursday that forces fighting for Ouattara, called Republican Forces, were coming to the area at night dragging out people identified as former soldiers in the defeated army that was accused of turning heavy weapons on civilians. They then shot them, the resident said on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
She said she had found three bodies in an empty plot near her home, and she knew the dead men as soldiers.
On Thursday, soldiers continued firing into the air to scare people, she said, adding that when people flee their homes are then looted. She said until this morning people had been walking around within the neighborhood as they were too scared to go past the road blocks set up by Ouattara’s forces that led into other parts of the suburb.
On Wednesday, a French patrol stopped at the house of Gbagbo’s last prime minister, Ake N’Gbo. Looters ran out of the gates with their hands in the air, some grasping bottles of wine. Once inside, the patrol found two cases of rockets, two cases of shotgun shells and two cases of banana-shaped magazines for Kalashnikov assault rifles.
The day before, at a residence nearby, the find had been much larger: more than 500 cases of mines, mortars and .50-caliber machine gun bullets.
“We’ve found considerable quantities of arms,” said Maj. Frederic Daguillon, spokesman for the 1,700-strong French Licorne Force in Ivory Coast. “But it’s not us who takes care of them, it’s the U.N.”
Earlier in the week, Pakistani U.N. peacekeepers arrived at the base of the Republican Guard, Gbagbo’s most highly trained and best equipped force. They had to call in a dump truck to haul away piles of AK-47 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and ammunition they found lying around after the base was abandoned while French attack helicopters bombarded it.
U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos painted a bleak picture of daily life in Abidjan and other parts of Ivory Coast, with food scarce, little or no electrical power and many hospitals and schools closed.
“In this highly militarized context, I am concerned about the security vacuum in many parts of the country,” she said.
In Duekoue, the western town where hundreds were killed, U.N. peacekeepers and Red Cross workers have buried more than 200 bodies in two mass graves in the Carrefour neighborhood. An Associated Press reporter who drove past deserted village after village on the road to the border with Liberia was besotted by the sickening sweet stench of decomposing bodies at several points along the road. It rose from dense bush in the tropical forest, indicating many bodies in remote areas are being left to rot.
With giant white flags flying from the backs of their SUVs, Red Cross workers wearing rubber gloves and boots are driving from body to body in Abidjan, carrying out the gruesome task of clearing the streets of corpses that are loaded into a minibus.
One worker grabbed the collarbone of a charred skeleton and another took the hips and lifted the jumble into a black plastic body bag. A third man, wearing a white face mask, scraped up the rest of the remains with a metal shovel.
“We receive calls at our call center telling us where the bodies are,” said Franck Kodjo, who led a team that had already picked up more than 20 bodies by midmorning Wednesday from Abidjan’s Cocody district alone.
“We record everything we can: location, time and appearance of the body, in the hopes of identifying them later,” Kodjo said.
Three separate armies are patrolling the streets of Abidjan: the white jeeps and trucks of the United Nations, the green camouflaged tanks of the French army and the ragtag pickup trucks of the disparate group of former rebels who fought to put Ouattara in power.
All three share the same mission of protecting the population and encouraging a return to normality. The U.N. is primarily concerned with weapons caches, the French with protecting foreigners and evacuating them to their base in the south of the city, and the pro-Ouattara forces seem to be elbowing each other for territory, accusing each other of looting and assuming the mantle of authority they fought so hard to win.
At a service station in the Cocody district, not far from Gbagbo’s residence, two groups of heavily armed soldiers piled into pickups, some with anti-aircraft guns fixed to the bed. They eyed each other suspiciously as Capt. Yeo Adama yelled at his men to arrest the other soldiers for looting.
Amara Bakayoko had his pistol seized even as he tried to explain that he was there to guard the station, not to steal from it.
“I even showed them my gun license, but they took it anyway,” he said. “I’m going to call the minister. This isn’t how you run a country.”
Gbagbo refused to cede power after losing a November election, leading to the standoff that killed untold numbers of people. More than 1 million civilians fled their homes amid the fighting, which also completely shut down the economy of the cocoa-producing powerhouse. Gbagbo was arrested by Ivorian soldiers at his home.
Ouattara said on Wednesday that Gbagbo will be kept in a villa and that the justice minister is preparing for his possible prosecution.
“There will be charges on a national level and an international level,” Ouattara said. “Reconciliation cannot happen without justice.”