Displaced women in the western Côte d’Ivoire town of Duékoué are slowly returning to a marketplace recently gutted by fire, but the incident has rekindled fear and despair in a town working to mend inter-ethnic relations after post-election violence.
The makeshift market - just across the road from the overcrowded Catholic mission site catering for over 27,000 displaced people - illustrates how political violence has sharpened an ethnic divide. Women mostly of the Guéré ethnic group launched the market after recent fighting because they feared venturing too far from the mission site.
Guéré women used to work at Duékoué's central market alongside Malinké, Burkinabé and other ethnic groups, but have not done so since recent fighting, Duékoué residents said.
"We are seen as pro-Laurent Gbagbo and regularly harassed," Abo Yaha Agnès, who before the fire sold a traditional cassava-based dish called `plakali’ in the market.
Malinké and Burkinabé largely back Alassane Ouattara, whose internationally recognized win in November elections was contested by Gbagbo and his supporters. "Since the fighting we cannot go to the central market. If you are Guéré, you can't go far from the Catholic mission; you risk being attacked, even killed."
She and other women at the market said people were gradually beginning to repair their stalls and sell. "But many of us lost everything and we've got nothing with which to start up again." Duékoué Prefect Benjamin Effoli told IRIN local authorities and groups would help the women, but vendors said to date they had had no assistance.
Counting on UN troops
Thousands who fled their home villages around Duékoué - mostly Guéré - fear attacks by pro-Ouattara groups and do not trust the new security forces.
Many displaced Guéré in the west told IRIN they count only on UN troops for their security. Abo told IRIN: "If it weren't for Morbatt [the Moroccan battalion based in Duékoué], we Guéré would all be dead."
Ensuring Ivoirians' security must be strictly a temporary role for the UN peacekeepers, said Salima Mokrani of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. "They can assure this only during a transition towards a deeper and wider effort to secure all communities, which is the government's role. It is necessary to work on social cohesion, particularly in areas of return, and this is our appeal to the government."
|If it weren't for [the UN troops based in Duékoué], we Guéré would all be dead|
UN police are investigating the cause of the fire, according to a UN source who could not be quoted in the media. Several displaced people at the site told IRIN that shortly before 1am on 25 May they saw armed men dressed in military clothing - whom they said were with the national army (Forces Républicaines de Côte d’Ivoire, FRCI) - loading trucks with goods then torching the market.
The FRCI commander in Duékoué, Koné Daouda, told IRIN the fire was not started by FRCI.
Whatever the cause of the blaze, it has clearly had a psychological impact on displaced families, said Fréderic de Woelmont, protection officer with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in western Côte d’Ivoire. For weeks UNHCR has been preparing to move some people from the Catholic mission, where some 27,500 people are living on four hectares, to another site in the town until they could return to their home villages.
“An incident like this is troubling to people; it has made them hesitant to leave the site," de Woelmont told IRIN. "They ask themselves: ‘If this could happen just next to the Catholic mission, how will we be secure at a new site?’” He said UNCHR is stepping up efforts to reassure people of their security, making people aware that UN troops will be posted at the new location. "We will get past this barrier."
In April, during initial meetings about moving to a new site, people at the Catholic mission expressed concern about their security.
Aid workers warn that the mission site could explode with infectious disease during the rainy season, which is already under way.
Douoyé Tahou Honoré, who is with an association of displaced families in Duékoué, said: “People were in the middle of preparing to return home or move to the new site, but [after the fire] many are afraid again.”
Oula Henri, with an association of traditional leaders in Duékoué, added: “We were starting to have hope [about the situation improving] but this really has us discouraged.”
Displaced women are tallying what they lost in the blaze, as requested by local authorities. “I’ve got nothing left,” said a mother of five who sold food in the marketplace. “Today I don’t even have five francs and I don’t know how I’m going to feed my children.”