Sleepy rebel capital slowly wakes up to peace

A frail bare-foot girl who looked to be less than 10 years old jumped out from the shade of a bush and pulled aside a plank of wood studded with nails that blocked the main road at the first of half a dozen rebel checkpoints on the way to Bouake, the second city of Cote d'Ivoire.

Behind her, older men and women dressed in T-shirts and woolly hats bearing the MPCI logo of the rebel Patriotic Movement of Cote d'Ivoire lounged around in requisitioned cars, painted with the names of their military units such as "Cobra" and "Watao." Many of them were armed with automatic assault rifles, but some appeared to be carrying no weapons at all.

The driver and passengers waved. The MPCI fighters waved back, but they did not bother to stop and check the car. Probably because of the light blue UN logo painted on the side. But probably too because there has been no fighting between rebel and government forces in this area of central Cote d'Ivoire for several months.

In fact, despite continuing tensions between the rebel-held north of the country and the government-ruled south, there are small signs that life in this divided country is gradually getting back to normal, nine months after it erupted into civil war.

A peace agreement in January eventually led to a ceasefire and the formation of a government of national reconciliation - which includes nine rebel ministers. Three weeks ago Prime Minister Seydou Diarra held a symbolic cabinet meeting in Bouake, where the MPCI has set up its national headquarters in a nursing school.

Convoys of trucks, travelling with a military escort, once more run through the city on their way from the port of Abidjan to landlocked Mali. At the end of June, the road and railway from Abidjan to Burkina Faso, which pass through Bouake, are also due to reopen to international traffic. And despite the frequent road blocks, an increasing number of lorries ply across the frontline to supply the rebel-held north of Cote d'Ivoire with consumer goods.

But although life is slowly coming back to Bouake, where the forests of southern Cote d'Ivoire give way to the savannahs of the north, this once bustling commercial centre remains a shadow of its former self.

All six petrol stations in the city's main avenue are closed, just like the banks and most of the shops. There are few private cars or taxis on the streets. The four-wheel drive vehicles of international relief agencies account for a large percentage of the traffic.

And indeed there are few people. Not even rebel patrols. The rebel military presence is marked mainly by groups of uniformed MPCI recruits - many of them well below the age of 18 - who go jogging and chanting through the streets as part of their training.

One aid worker estimated that half of Bouake's 600,000 inhabitants had fled since the civil war was sparked off by a failed military coup on September 19 last year.

“They say Bouake is back on its feet, but the only things living here are the ghosts”, said Aboubacar, a visibly saddened young man who used to drive a taxi, but who is now unemployed.

“And they say the Lebanese are back!” remarked his equally jobless friend, Abdoul, alluding to the fact that Lebanese traders and shopkeepers control most of the commerce in Cote d'Ivoire. Until recently this was the most prosperous country in West Africa, supplying 40 percent of the world's cocoa and exporting industrial goods to its neighbours.

But while there is a Lebanese sitting behind every till in Abidjan's bustling commercial district of Treichville, a visiting IRIN correspondent saw just one Lebanese shopkeeper in Bouake, selling a modest assortment of suitcases, fans and other electrical goods.

There is still electricity in Bouake, water still flows from the taps and the telephone system works in a haphazard fashion. You can even make mobile phone calls across the front line that lies 60 km south of the city to the government-held south.

But by day the only place that bustles is the central market. Most of the town's businesses have been closed for months. Banks, pharmacies, supermarkets, travel agencies, restaurants and hotels lie shuttered or with their windows broken.

And at night the city is calm, almost dead. The only signs of life are a few people strolling along the roadside and a small group of friends drinking beer quietly on the terrace of a bar.

Although a government of national reconciliation was formed in April, its writ does not yet run in MPCI territory, where the rebels have formed their own fledgeling administration and have managed to reopen a few schools.

According to Education Minister Michel Amani N'Guessan, only 95,000 of the 600,000 children who normally attend school in the rebel-held area have been receiving regular lessons.

There is even radio and television in Bouake. But the stations put out MPCI, not government programmes. The main item on television news tends not to be what President Laurent Gbagbo has just done in Abidjan. It is more likely to a focus on the exploits of a rebel commander who less than a year ago was simply a low-ranking officer in the army.

Luckily, Bouake, which fell rapidly to rebel forces at the start of the civil war, does not bare the scars of war. Its buildings remain intact and undamaged.

And although the government ministries in Abidjan have yet to send back their civil servants to restore a national administration, there are some encouraging signs that the nation is starting to glue itself back together.

The first is the increasing number of trucks laden high with goods that have begun to ply the road between Bouake and Abidjan, 400 km to the south.

The second is the sight of the Ivorian flag flying atop MPCI cars, reflecting the sentiments of one rebel official who told IRIN “whatever happens, the country will remain one and undivided”.

The last time the visiting IRIN correspondent was in Bouake was in early 2002 before the civil war began. On that day, he stopped as usual at his favourite music store to get a few tunes for the trip back. This time he was the only customer. As he headed back to the car, he heard the shop's loudspeakers thundering out the words of slain US rap artist Tupac Amaru Shakur: “After every dark night, there is a bright day.”