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Mark describes visiting his site in the Ivory Coast after the evacuation
Mark describes visiting his site in the Ivory Coast after the evacuation
Mark describes visiting his site after the evacuation.
Nov. 8, 2002
I enter RCI through the Malian border at Zegoua (the main paved road from Abidjan). The border town is dead. I meet someone there who claims he is a former gendarme. I also meet a CARE representative having breakfast at a sandwich place. He says the local Malian kids told him they were being recruited by the rebels and being offered 10,000 cfa a day to fight. [~ 650 cfa to the USD]
A moto taxi takes me across the border. At border checkpoint, rebel with one black fingerless glove asks me what I'm doing here and then asks me if I can get him a visa to the U.S.
"Don't you have work to do here?" "This will all be over soon," he says.
He lets me through without any problems. Almost apologetic that they have to search my bags. They lean on their AK-47s.
Once in Pogo, on the RCI side, see guys transferring fuel they'd carried in 20-liter containers on the back of their motos – the Malians are not letting fuel across in tankers, I'm told. I get into a baca (a the local version of the minibuses used for transport all over Africa) and pay 20% more for my transport to my village than I would have before the war started.
We head out and immediately encounter the usual Ivoirian routine – checkpoints. The driver goes over under the tree where the armed men are sitting. But they don't ask for ID cards. Rebels wave and smile at me. While at the border, they had automatic weapons, here they carry old 12-gague shotguns. One gun has a silver-beaded stock, like something out of the Mexican Revolution.
Drive by women washing clothes in the river and drying them in the dirt, just like always.
Second checkpoint. Now check ID cards. More polite than average gendarmes, but for how long? Wear civilian clothes and a green military-looking hat.
Third stop. "Pieces d'identite, s.v.p." "Ceux qui n'ont pas votre pieces d'identite, il faut descendre." Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Fourth stop. "Ca c'est ma femme, ca," a rebel with a red beret and mirrored sunglasses, says about his submachine gun, kissing the gun. The rebels have a monkey tied up on a string and all wave when I wave at them. These rebels look a little like the lost boys you see hanging around transport parks but now they have finally found something to do.
Fifth stop. Diewala. Total asshole checking peoples's bags, etc. MTNBSATOB. Asks who's bag is the black one and the driver points at me (it's not my bag) knowing the rebels won't search the white man's bag. Only a few big trucks on the road, compared to the hundreds before the war. No fuel tankers in sight. One truck is loaded with refugees and their belongings.
Sixth stop. Really three stops within a quarter mile, all in sight of each other. Of course the rebels still demand the driver's paperwork at all three stops.
Seventh stop. Demand to see bags. MTNB. Driver starts arguing, successfully. Passengers make clicking noise that Ivoirians make when trying to show impatience.
10th stop. Ouangalo. First to make me nervous. Questioned fairly closely. Berets and sunglasses seem to be de rigeur.
11th. Still in Ouangalo. Poll me off, look at my passport. Ask me why I left RCI. Tell me rebels are men too, no? Grabs my arm to pull me into base, but lets me go at the gate.
12:30 PM arrive in village.
People greet me happily, say "you're back." They act like I'd spent a few too many days in Bouake taking R&R or whatever they supposed I did when I left the village and now I'm back like usual. They ask me "how was Abidjan?" "Tu as dure." The village XXX is probably my best friend in the village -- he hugs me and picks me up when he sees me. Like everybody else, his face falls and he gets quiet when I tell him I'm not here to stay – that I have to leave in a few days. The old ladies are particularly frank. "Now that we are having problems, you up and leave," a few of them tell me. I shrug. I don't have a good answer for them.
It's market day in the village. Holy shit they're weighing babies. The community health workers in the village are at it, uniforms and all. Something Peace Corps started in the village is actually still happening without Peace Corps present. They get about a quarter of their usual 30 babies because people aren't coming in from surrounding villages because of transport difficulties. Still, it's nice to see something you do carried on after you leave.
The market is much quieter than usual. Fewer choices, fewer shoppers. The trader who used to sell me sugar and Nescafe, called me "chief" and even smiled sometimes isn't there.
Two rebels stop by the baby-weighing station. One is from a neighboring village. (My villagers tell me that only one guy from the village has gone to fight. The Djembara, near Korhogo, are much better fighters, because the bullets pass through them, they tell me. They're completely serious. The main rebel spokesman, though, is from Lafopokaha, a Niarafolo village that had a Peace Corps volunteer in it about 25 Km away) The rebel says he can tell I used to be in the army and that the US is the biggest power in the world. I tell him I was never in the army but he doesn't really believe me. The rebels requisition some wood from women selling it on the side of the road. [A village friend points out that it's always the people least able to cope that get things stolen from them.]
As the market is wrapping up, some of the community health workers and I are hanging out on my porch. There is automatic weapons fire on the road. I duck behind my wall. They laugh. The firing starts again and I duck again, along with Mamadou, who had been in the process of pointing out that Mark is scared. Everybody laughs at both Mamadou and I. [Rebels were just having fun firing in the air.] Mamadou is dressed in a beret and sunglasses, rebel-style. I ask him if he's going to go fight. He says no, he doesn't want to get killed.
I'm sitting around talking with the nurse and a guy everybody calls "the mayor." He's not elected or appointed but he steals money from various village organizations. Maybe that's why they call him the mayor, I don't know. Anyway, the mayor and I do not get along. The nurse knows this. The nurse tells me the mayor is going into Ferke, the nearest big town, to sleep with the wives and daughters of dead gendarmes. I look at the mayor and he laughs.
"They need to eat," the mayor says, shrugging his shoulders. "There are lots of `femmes libres' in Ferke now if you want." "It's a form of revenge for them," the nurse says. "The gendarmes harassed them and now they get to sleep with their women."
The mill grinder in the village is still running, which surprises me. But it doesn't run much, because the village women don't sell much wood by the side of the road anymore to earn money to pay for grain grinding. You hear a lot more pounding in the evenings in the village.
Listening to Lou Reed ("Sweet Jane") as the sun sets. Kids are hanging around the house. They are happy to have me back. But they are mad at me for burning my papers, because they like to take the papers and play with them and scatter them all over the village.
Funeral this afternoon. Body wrapped in cotton cloth. A line of men tramps through the dust carrying the body. She was an AIDS case if I've ever seen one. Skinny, back from Abidjan, died of a long illness. But people won't acknowledge AIDS unless pressed. "On ne sait pas." Meet the new boss.
Miriam, the 14-year-old girl who got my water and washed my clothes and came by my house sometimes way too late at night to be just an innocent 14-year-old, is pregnant [by a teenager from the village]. Same as the old boss.
The health team has booted off one of its members, because he tried to sleep with someone else's wife.
A friend who I'd helped out financially reports to me on his business dealings. He's doing fine, and is using his cash to buy calves from the Peuls [Fulani], because the price of cows has dropped 50-60 percent. The rebels took some of the charcoal he was hoping to sell.
Cabato and sauce arachide for dinner. Yum. Over dinner, Silue tells me that a brother of one of his friends in Ferke was a gendarme. This gendarme was headed for the Mali border, but was caught by the rebels 3 km from freedom. The rebels brought the gendarme back to Ferke and shot him in front of his family. Silue was in the room and says a bullet went right by his leg. [Villagers are afraid to travel to Ferke because of incidents like this.]
The nurse tells me (and others tell the same story) that a lady in Ferke accused a young guy of stealing her moto. The rebels killed him. Turns out the lady's little brother had borrowed the moto.
Not once have I heard the words "Christian" or "Muslim" used by people here to describe the conflict.
Mostly packed up. I'm not taking out much. Journals, negatives, camera, shortwave radio, Carhartts. Now have to decide what to give to whom.
"They start shooting and the Americans run away," a villager says to me for the tenth time.
The kids are acting like it's Christmas morning, yelling for me to wake up at 7 AM. They get old wrapping paper, photos, postcards – unbelievable riches. It's good to be loved.
It's also good to know I can still inspire fear. I show up at a friend's campement and a little girl is so scared to see me she runs away, trips, falls down and lies kicking on her back like a bug about to be squashed. She pees in her pants. I help her get up.
None of the functionaries are being paid or can even access their bank accounts. Most of them have at least small fields, so are doing ok on food, for now. [The nurse is still working, but the teachers are not. I'm not sure why – it's not like they have anything better to do.]
Start to hear from villagers that though they support the rebels, they don't think the rebels can achieve anything, that the whole situation has spun out of control.
There's a lot of card-playing in the village now. No TV, no FM radio. Everybody is outside playing -- that's right -- Huite American (Crazy Eights). Sort of like being locked down in the Baptist compound in Korhogo, except we had DVDs and a Frisbee.
Left village this morning to small sendoff at 7 a.m. Ate my last yogurt.
Moto ride to Ouangalo. Talked to a rebel there about leaving. He's huge and is absentmindedly playing with a handgun and dressed in a tight green t-shirt with a silver chain around his neck. Contrast to most of the rebels, who look uncomfortable holding their weapons. He looks bored with my question and tells me I don't need a laissez- passer to leave if I don't have my own vehicle. Get on a baca headed for Mali.
"Are you French?" a rebel asks me at a checkpoint. "No, American." "Good, you are our brother. The French are not good. They kill Ivoirians. The French want to destroy Africa."
[There is a break in my journal here. You'll see why.]
Ok, the last two days had me shit-scared.
Pulled off transport at Diawalla. Rebels didn't like my laissez- passer (it was to Ferke, but not back from Ferke). [Someone points out later this may have been a demand for a small bribe, but I didn't think fast enough.] They have me empty out my bags. They are almost triumphant when they find my notebook. It proves what they already suspected – "You are a spy" – and gives them something to do. [Note: no, I'm not really a spy.]
I try to explain that keeping a notebook is just something Americans do when they travel. I'd made a trip to go back and visit the village where I'd been doing health work. I throw out a few words in Niarafolo. They apparently aren't among the 30,000 people in the world that speak Niarafolo. They tell me to translate the notebook. I give them a sanitized version.
"That's what I thought. We will take you to Korhogo."
They send the transport on its way and sit me under armed guard by the side of the road. I keep trying to explain who I am – former American volunteer, health worker, etc. and they seem to calm down. One of my guards removes his boots and puts on flip-fops. A girl hands me some bananas. "Tiens."
They put my bags in their Nissan Patrol. It's a former police car now marked "MPCI Diawala" in yellow paint. They say they are taking me to Korhogo to talk to the "Col-o-nel" and get a laissez-passer. They say I will be fine. They tell me I am lucky. If someone else had caught me, they would've killed me "just like that." I am not reassured.
The rebels hand me some watermelon. It's hot and the watermelon tastes good. I can understand the affection hostages feel for their captors. They can do whatever they want to you and the simple act of not shooting you and maybe even giving you watermelon seems so much better than the alternative that you can't help feeling grateful.
An officer drives by in a small red car. Stops, gets out. Tight fatigues and red beret. One of my guards kicks the other to wake him up. This officer also congratulates me on how lucky I am not to be shot on the spot. "They should take him to Korhogo and show him the bodies, then he'll see," he says to a soldier.
The "commandant" of these particular rebels, as everyone calls him, is older, tanky and wears a softcap. At one point he tells someone to go buy some bread. "If the merchant won't sell it for 125 cfa [now the going price for bread] then I'll just take ten loaves," the commandant says. A particularly syncophantic underling says "what's to stop you?" "Yeah, what is to stop me?" the commandant says.
As they are about to load me into the Patrol, the commandant pulls the bolt back on his AK 47. He fires five shots in the air and laughs. He levels his rifle at someone across the road. They duck. He laughs a lot. Fires two more shots in the air. My ears are ringing.
They put me in the back seat and the commandant drives the Patrol while a soldier in front holds both AK47s. They take a dirt road out of town. Are they driving me into the bush to shoot me? Why the fuck didn't I listen to people and stay out of RCI?
We're finally driving long enough that it seems they won't shoot me after all. Bouncing along the dirt road at 50 KPH. Hoping the weapons don't accidentally discharge.
We get to the rebel headquarters, which is in the old ministry of defense buildings on the east side of Korhogo. They tell me to wait by the car. I am calming down. 15 minutes later, the two rebels fetch me and hand one of the rifles and an ammunition belt to a very non- military-looking guy in a purple shirt and purple pants. He seems a likely candidate to make a mistake and shoot me in the back.
I am led into a room and meet an officer with short hair and fierce eyes. He sits behind a desk. I wonder if they're going to have purple pants boy fire off the rifle just to scare me. The officer asks me why I don't have a laissez-passer. A good sign. At least he didn't start on the notebook right away. I explain Peace Corps, visit my village, trying to leave. He seems sympathetic and understands my version of the story.
He motions to the camera and asks me if I've taken spy photos. No. I look him in the eyes. He stares back. Photos of military things? No, just villagers. He says he wants to keep the film. Hey, no problem, I say. He gives me back the unshot rolls. And the camera. And doesn't mention the 20 rolls, some already exposed, I have in my bags.
He picks up the letters. I explain I am acting as a courier to the other Peace Corps volunteers who were in my village before me. "Have you read the letters?" he asks. "No."
He reads one letter. Fine. He asks me to open the second and reads it. It's from a young woman in my village. Her letter says the villagers are "bothered by gunfire." He says it's not true, that they don't bother the villagers. "You know women," I say, "they are always scared," doing my best to appeal to Ivoirian sexism and hoping he doesn't point out that I am also scared. "We cannot accept this," he says, tearing the written half of the sheet off and sticking the blank half back in the envelope. "Tu comprends," he says. "Oui, je comprends."
The notebook is still lying there. He hands it back with the letters without saying anything. I know I am home free. He tells me he's going to give me a laissez-passer for the Mali border. I thank him, smile and promise never to do it again. He smiles for the first time. Has someone else write out the form and hands it to me. Tells me they'll take me to a hotel. I shake his hand, thank him and he says he hopes we meet again. In a way, so do I.
The rebels drop me off at the Motel Agip. It's closed, but they have the guy open up for me. I'm their first customer since the evacuation. (I had sat next to the motel's French owner on the C-160 out of Korhogo. She's in Burkina Faso now, I'm told.)
The hotel manager is a nice guy, and takes me out to a maquis where we eat poisson braizer and atcheke. My favorite. I drink a much- needed beer. He seems to want to talk. Here's what he says: town calm, people able to eat. Hard for government workers, because they're not paid. People support the rebels. [About the support, he's probably talking honestly, but to say people don't support the rebels would be the height of stupidity. There are two armed rebels in the next room eating with their girlfriends.] Civilians still using motos. All vehicles belong to the rebels, except for some public transport and goods and tanker trucks. The rebels haven't robbed the local banks.
Still his words: Sometimes the rebels will come by and "talk" to people who have "parler mal" about the rebels. They'll ask you why you were saying those things and take you into their camp and beat you up a little and hold you for a few days if they don't like your explanations. The only people the rebels are executing are robbers and thieves. They are hard on thieves, because they don't want to be accused of lawlessness and thievery themselves. [I heard about the rebels killing thieves from almost everyone I talked to.]
We go back to the hotel. A little BBC and turn in. Up at 6:30 am on Nov. 12. Out of hotel by 7:30 am to find transport to Mali. Hotel manager is very helpful and takes me around on his moto. Find the only transport (a baca) leaving for the Mali border. Buy a ticket for 7,000 cfa. Normally 5,500.
Hotel manager and I go to Total Café in the middle of Korhogo for breakfast. The cafe is filled with rebels – the manager and I are the only civilians. The rebels are really enjoying their morning coffee. There is no way they would eat here before the uprising. Before, it was all whities and rich Ivoirians. It must be liberating to drink espresso and get a taste of the high life. The rebels are pulling up in twin- and single-cab pickups, SUVs, Mercedes sedans and Peugeot 306s. One pickup has a bipod machine gun mounted on the roof. A few cars pull in with BRIGADE ANACONDA painted on the hoods. (I'm told later that it's a tribute to the movie "Anaconda", starring Ice Cube and a big snake.). Some cars are also decorated with COBRA or COMMANDOS MAUVAIS DE FERKE. One SUV has a bullet hole through the windshield right where the driver's head would be. The rebels don't drive very fast and usually drive with their emergency flashers on. MPCI (Movement Patriotique Cote d'Ivoire) is painted on all the cars.
The rebels are sauntering around. Most have hats. Green billed hats, black berets, red berets, even big rasta-style hats with impossibly long dreadlocks to match (I've rarely seen an Ivoirian with dreads – are these mercenary soldiers?). Some of the soldiers look pretty badass, with knives strapped to their ankles, doing their best imitations of, well, African rebels. Some of them look like they have no idea what they're doing. These look plainly uncomfortable with their AK47s, and never seem to know how they should carry the guns or where they should rest the weapons as they sit down to eat. They wear market-bought polyester camo t-shirts and maybe a green vest and green pants and cross-trainer shoes or plastic Jelly sandals. Some wear WWII-vintage helmets. Some nod at me. One asks if I'm the press. No. Most studiously ignore me.
Getting back to the baca to leave, they of course overload it. We pull out at 1030 and just make a U-turn. It turns out the driver doesn't have a laissez-passer for the vehicle to leave. Leave again at 1130. Stop somewhere at the northern end of town and send someone ahead to buy off the rebels at the checkpoint while the driver fixes a malfunctioning clutch and brakes. Apparently, the bribe doesn't work, because we're turned back at the edge of town. It's now 1 pm. I am panicking because my paperwork is for the 12th, not the day after. I go back to the rebels and ask them for new papers. Leave today, they say.
I go back to the station. We have to go around the main street where the rebels are shouting and pushing back a big crowd lord knows why. The baca has left and my bags are sitting on the ground. They hand me my money back. Shit. I am holding back rising panic and have visions of never being able to leave Korhogo. The hotel manager (still with me) puts me on his moto. We head for the edge of town, trying to catch the baca. Moto is too slow with me and my bags on it. A friend of the manager catches up to us and he puts me on his moto and the manager follows us with my bags. The baca bounces out of a side street behind us. Yes. We stop at the checkpoint. The rebels demand to see my laissez-passer. Once they see the commander's signature, they smile, shake my hand and wish me good luck. I wish them the same.
They've already sold my seat on the baca, but say don't worry about it and stuff me on anyway. One guy even offers to give up his seat for me, saying he doesn't have to leave today. "Pardon," I say. People are nice about it. They realize the position I'm in and how scared I am.
Why scared? I feel like I gave no control over the situation. I don't want to get stuck in a rebel prison or get caught in the crossfire if the government invades. I feel like events are spiraling out of control, especially after seeing the rebels pushing back that crowd in the street with the stocks of their guns.
We take the Mbengue road. 100Km in 4.5 hours. See a few motos and one rebel truck. 3 Km before Mbengue, the driver stops the baca and demands 250 cfa from everyone to "glisser" the rebels so we can get through. (They have bought a laissez-passer from another vehicle for another route.) Everybody gets pissed off and tells them no. An Imam from Timbuktu sitting next to me translates the argument. People are friendly to me on this trip, and I to them perhaps because I realize I'll need them if the going gets rough.
So the driver abandons his effort to extort money from the passengers and bribes the rebels 2000 cfa and we get through. We stop and fix the brakes again. The baca is in poor shape and stalls whenever the driver tries to put it in first gear.
Rolling out of Mbengue, it is dark. The rebels didn't seem concerned about me. The other passengers and I have long conversations about Ivoirian politics. The more educated say Gbabgbo is an idiot but the rebels will have to work hard to be any better.
Drive through the night. Another rebel post lets us through. The apprentice smiles and gives me the thumbs-up. After another hour of taking sandy bush tracks, we come to a creek. "Here is the end of Ivoirian territory," says the Imam. The baca crosses the creek. It stalls out on the other bank and we push it up. We're in Mali. I'm safe.
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