Deadlock a harsh blow to youth living behind rebel lines

In the bustling main market of the rebel-held town of Man in Cote d’Ivoire, the 20-somethings are among the most frustrated by the country’s three years of no war no peace.

“Every year that goes by, things get worse. You live day by day - when you have 100 francs CFA (US 20 cents) you can eat but you can’t plan for the future,” said Justin Loua as he sat in the shade of a friend’s Chinese medicine kiosk.

“The youth are being sacrificed.”

Loua, a 26-year-old who lives with his girlfriend and their one-year-old daughter, has no work and little chance of finding any.

“I have nothing,” he said. “I got my baccalaureate (end of secondary school diploma) but because it was registered under rebel administration no one will recognise it.”

The country is in the grip of fresh uncertainty ahead of a new deadline this weekend in its efforts to make peace between the rebel north and government-controlled south. The UN Security Council has called for a new prime minister to be appointed by 31 October to try to reunify the country and organise elections within a year.

Reunification would go a long way to resolving problems for those living behind rebel lines.

Education systems broke down in the northern half of Cote d’Ivoire after a failed coup in September 2002 split the country in two. Teachers fled to the south, and in their absence schools closed and graduation exams stopped.

One year, the New Forces rebel movement organised exams, but many say this was a waste of time and money as none of the functioning universities, which are all in the south, will recognise diplomas such as Loua’s.

“Education has become politicised in this country and that’s a shame,” said Bony Mpaka, the representative for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Man.

Ivorian youth pay a high price for conflict

“This is fuelling the New Forces because it leaves lots of budding new recruits and creates hatred of the central government among students and parents alike,” he said.

Octave Koulibaly, who is 24 and completed the first year of an IT course before war shut down his college, says many men his age have signed up with the rebels for the money, the clout and the clothes.

“I have friends who are with the New Forces,” he said. “They usually joined for the money or to protect the area. But they were also given a uniform to strut about town in,” he says, as a friend imitates a swaggering soldier - chin up, back arched. Man’s rebels received a consignment of new uniforms a few months ago and the lustre of the new starched clothes hasn’t yet worn off.

Non-rebel youths generally go about in faded second-hand jeans and cast-off T-shirts from Europe and North America that Koulibaly, the would-be computer programmer, sells in the market.

Although he’s at his wooden stall every day, he knows he can’t earn enough to compete with his uniformed peers for a girlfriend. “The New Forces guys are popular with the girls. They have money and girls are materialistic,” he complains with a shrug.

Not enough money for food

Around the corner, seven young women hairdressers sit around braiding each other’s hair - not a customer in sight. A poster on the wall and a style catalogue feature an assortment of elaborate, swirling hairdos.

“It’s always toughest for the women,” said Fatime Keita, a single mother of a four-year-old. “It’s the women who put food on the table, not the men.”

Clients are rare at Man salon

Customers are absent from the run-down salon these days because women use the little money they have to feed their children, Keita said. “They’ll get a friend to braid their hair and wear a head scarf instead.”

The market in this lush, mountainous region is busting with food - tomatoes, giant papaya and heaps of gnarled yams - and prices are low because it’s harvest time.

The women would love to be able to stock up; they know that in a few weeks the harvest will end and prices will climb. But they have only enough cash to buy one meal at a time.

Keita moved to Abidjan last year, hoping to make a living in the commercial capital in the government-run south. But with the economy shrinking and jobs scarce, her money lasted her only three months and she had to return to Man.

But not everyone Keita’s age can think of moving to Abidjan. Koulibaly would like to continue his IT studies but is reluctant to leave the rebel zone as the only identification paper he has is his old secondary school card.

No new identity cards have been issued since Cote d’Ivoire suffered its first coup in December 1999, making it tough for many youth to travel or register for study or jobs. And in rebel areas, the civil servants and police that once issued such documents closed their offices when the war began.

Even for those who have identity papers, facing the 100 military checkpoints on the 600-kilometre trek from Man to Abidjan can be costly and fraught with intimidation.

“I prefer to sit this out,” said Koulibaly who hopes that his deciding not to take up arms will count for something in a newly pacified state.

“After the war what will they do?” he asked. “Many have abused their positions; there must be justice for this.”