Mural in Korhongo, in the rebel-held north of the country. In this part of the country, children have become accustomed to the presence of armed men.
Credit: Pauline Bax/IRIN
The first time she heard the sound of gunfire, 12-year-old Kumba Traore scrambled for the protection of her mother. Today, almost four years after rebels in Cote d’Ivoire set up their headquarters in Bouake, Kumba is no longer afraid of the armed men who control her town.
What do kids living in a town like this learn? Kumba giggles as her kid brother shyly recites the new words the military occupation has taught him. "Rocket-propelled grenade. Machine gun. 12-7. And PA - PA stands for automatic pistol," he explained.
Cote d'Ivoire has been divided into a rebel-held north and a government-controlled south since a group of disgruntled soldiers attempted to topple the regime of President Laurent Gbagbo in September 2002. After failing to seize the southern port city and seat of government, Abidjan, the rebels moved north and set up offices in the country’s second biggest town, Bouake.
By late 2002, this once-bustling commercial town in central Cote d’Ivoire was awash with rebel soldiers manning improvised roadblocks. Pick-up trucks mounted with machine guns sped through the streets. After the rebels signed a peace deal with the government in January 2003, French troops set up military camps in former office buildings. Later, United Nations peacekeepers moved in to maintain a fragile peace from behind razor-wire fences. Yet it is the New Forces rebel movement that runs Bouake.
Residents point out that the town has always been highly militarised: before the war, it was an important base for the Ivorian armed forces. Although the grown-ups who decided to stay on under rebel command have accepted and even become accustomed to the new leadership, the rebels' impact on the children of Bouake has been considerable.
"You can't have a child pick up some kind of object, or he will pretend that it's a weapon," said Ibrahima Doumbia, spokesman of the local branch of the Ivorian Movement for Human Rights. "The warlords are a role model for young boys. I have a five-year-old who knows everything about arms. He is always pestering me: 'Daddy, why don't you become a soldier?'"
To keep children away from the gun-toting men, most parents knew there was only one solution: reopen the town's schools, which were closed down most when the government fled to the south when the rebels took control. "During the early days of the rebellion, school was the last of our worries. We were preoccupied with day-to-day survival," said Ibrahima Coulibaly, a volunteer teacher at a private primary school. “But as soon as there was a semblance of calm, we felt it was a moral imperative to get our schools reopened.
"We had to reorganise the social fabric of society,” he said. “Children were playing with wooden sticks as guns and they were very much tempted to approach the rebels."
Coulibaly said that free school meals provided by the UN World Food Programme helped to convince most of Bouake's children to attend school. "Most parents were extremely motivated to help us. Leaving their child at home, they had one more mouth to feed. So these food distributions have really saved us."
Ivorian rebel fighter in the northern town of Korhongo. Fanta Diallo, a mother of seven children, said that she is trying to keep her children off the streets until real peace returns.
By January 2003, many schools had reopened, although not all the children attended. Coulibaly said he had “lost” two students to the rebellion. One boy ran errands for the rebels until Coulibaly confronted the student's father, who was not aware that his son skipped classes. The boy was reprimanded and eventually returned to the classroom. Another of Coulibaly's best students, however, a 15-year-old girl, has abandoned her studies entirely and serves as bodyguard to one of the rebels. "I consider it a failure that I have not been able to convince her to leave the rebels," he sighed. "But she came from a broken family, and it is those children who are the most vulnerable. They need structure."
Coulibaly said teachers avoided discussing politics in class and would answer students' questions about the conflict only in private. "School should be a place where they can forget about the war," he said.
With presidential elections due in October 2006 and peace talks – including discussions of disarmament – taking place under the supervision of Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny, hopes are high that Cote d’Ivoire may soon be reunited. Already, there are fewer arms on display on the streets of Bouake than at the start of the conflict. The rebels say the town is more or less demilitarised.
"We took most of our weapons off the streets, and we hope that youngsters are able to forget this war situation," said rebel spokesman Sidiki Konate. "Today in Bouake, you no longer have the impression that you’re living in a war zone."
However, Fanta Diallo, a mother of seven, said she tries to keep her children off the streets until real peace returns. Pointing to her eldest daughter, who is in her teens and starting to get interested in boys, Diallo said she does not want her or any of her other children to go near the rebels. "When school is out, she has to walk straight home and stay with me," Diallo said, as she pounded yams in her courtyard in one of the town's residential areas. "She is still a minor, and I don't want her hanging around those young men in military gear.
"Even in normal times, when there are no guns, parents should be responsible," Diallo said, wiping the sweat off her brow. "And the heart of a child that sees weapons around them grows harder every day."