Guineans flee Conakry unrest, ethnic tension

Guinea’s political violence is hitting residents of the capital Conakry increasingly hard, with some families forced to flee their homes and others relocating for fear of ethnically based attacks.

President Alpha Condé has ordered an investigation into the latest violence, which followed a 23 May opposition protest over upcoming legislative elections. The government says 12 people were killed and about 100 others injured.

"It’s difficult to swallow - that fellow Guineans would come and ravage your home like this,” said a resident of Conakry’s Bambeto neighbourhood who requested anonymity.

He said that after the demonstration turned violent, men in gendarmes’ uniforms and civilian clothing ransacked his family’s house and two kiosks he rented out, stealing everything from cell phones to mattresses. They even ripped off parts of the roof.

“When I look at our roofless home, it gives me a stabbing pain. We Guineans don’t deserve this. We don’t deserve this.”

It is not clear how many people have been forced to flee their homes, but many residents told IRIN the latest violence has been alarming and voiced concerns about deepening inter-ethnic hostility. Many houses have been burned.

Government spokesman Damantang Albert Camara said local authorities were assessing the impact of the unrest, but he could not give an overall figure of those affected.

“Indeed there are families who have left their homes, either to avoid violence or because they’ve already been targeted,” Camara told IRIN. “Some have relocated out of concern for their security.”

A UN humanitarian worker in Conakry said that, for now, the organization was not assessing the impact of the violence, as the home-burnings were isolated incidents and there was no mass displacement. He said the UN is providing assistance to hospitals treating those wounded in the unrest.

Ethnic and political tensions

Ethnic divisions have long been part of Guinea politics, but Conakry residents say tensions between the two main groups - Malinké and Peulh - have risen steadily since the 2010 election of Condé, a Malinké, who defeated Peulh opponent Cellou Dalein Diallo in a run-off.

Many Peulh to this day do not accept Condé’s victory. In the latest political stand-off, Diallo and other opposition leaders accuse Condé’s government of planning to rig legislative elections, which, after years of delays, are set for 30 June.

The government and the opposition are holding talks facilitated by UN Special Representative for West Africa Said Djinnit. The agenda includes the opposition’s grievances over the electoral process, mainly the right of Guineans living abroad to vote and misgivings about the firm drawing the voters’ roll.

The Bambeto resident said his son was beaten unconscious during the attack on their family home, and that he and his family are just grateful to be alive. President Condé has said the government would cover medical care for those injured in the violence.

The father of five said that, even before the incident, life was hard. His family, a household of some 20 members, would do petty trade to buy food each day.

“For now neighbours and family members are being very generous and helping us out, which is fine for the short term. But I don’t see when we’ll be able to establish our own source of revenue again… We’re living with some neighbours until we can repair our home. Once I come up with the money, I’m going to build a 3m wall around the house so at the very least if things heat up again we can hide out there.”

Former civil servant Kadiatou Bah, whose home was also vandalized during the riots, said: “They took everything they could from our home and burned the rest.”

She said that men in gendarmes’ uniforms ransacked her family’s home. “I pleaded with them - I told them it was with my civil servant pay that I was able to build this house. They wouldn’t listen. They beat me in the feet with their rifles.”

The gendarme spokesman was unreachable for comment.

Peulh say gendarmes accompanied by pro-Condé youth are carrying out the attacks, specifically targeting Peulh homes. Meanwhile, some Malinké are fleeing their homes in communities dominated by Peulh.

“When there is the slightest unrest, I stay at a friend’s home in another district,” said an Ivoirian who speaks Malinké and lives in a mainly Peulh neighbourhood. He said he is regularly threatened and harassed by Peulh youth who associate him with the Malinké in Guinea.

Relocating to avoid violence is not a new phenomenon in Conakry. Some residents say they know families who moved in the aftermath of the September 2009 stadium massacre and then again during the 2010 election campaign. But such displacement has risen with the recent unrest.

Ethnic tensions determine people’s choice of residential areas, said Aboubacar Cissé. “When people are looking for a house or apartment in Conakry, they take into account whether the owner is Peulh or Malinké and whether the neighbourhood is predominantly one ethnicity or another.”

He added, “I know a lot of people who are relocating to parts of Conakry they see as safer because they would be surrounded by people of their own ethnic group.”

Fighting for peace

Cissé, who took part in a training by the NGO Search for Common Ground, is one of many Conakry residents working to keep the peace. There are community groups throughout the capital struggling to rein in the violence. Cissé is secretary of a local NGO in Conakry’s Dixinn District, where he and colleagues meet regularly with local youth, including those who have carried out attacks, to talk about how to restore peace.

“The solution is us, not the politicians,” Cissé said. “It must be us.”

President Condé, in a 28 May statement, said violence is “unacceptable, highly irresponsible and reprehensible.” He said he has asked the justice minister to set up a panel of judges to investigate the recent violence and “to do justice to all the victims”.

“In Guinea, nobody should be a victim because of his origins or opinions,” Condé said.

 np/ob/rz