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Côte d'Ivoire: Feminist pain, disgust, tears, & then defiance in the face of Gbagbo's guns PDF Print E-mail

images/stories/Guardian_logo.gif London ~ Saturday March 12 2011
Ivory Coast women defiant after being targeted by Gbagbo's guns
Slaughter of protesters calling for president Laurent Gbagbo to quit heightens resistance
David Smith in Abidjan 

Scroll down to also read "Ivory Coast on brink of civil war as seven women killed at protest march"
images/stories/IvoryCoastFemDefiance.jpg Women hold posters reading 'Gbagbo, women killer' and 'Gbagbo, even Hitler did not kill like you did, true killer of democracy' during a demonstration in Treichville, Abidjan to condemn the killings of seven women (Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images)

First guilt, then pain, then disgust. First tears, then sleeplessness, then defiance. This has been the inner turmoil of Aya Virginie Toure, principal organiser of a peaceful demonstration by 15,000 women that ended in unthinkable, horrifying carnage.

Like millions of people in Ivory Coast and all over the world, Toure was sickened last week when soldiers loyal to incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo trained machine guns on protesters and opened fire. Six were killed on the spot, a seventh died in hospital and about 100 were wounded as the streets of Abidjan ran with blood.

But resolute and unbowed, women young and old were back out in force this week brandishing placards that said: "Don't shoot us" – a gesture that won the admiration of president Barack Obama and testified to a rich heritage of female activism in west Africa that could yet prove Gbagbo's undoing.

Toure is president of a women's group allied to the party of Alassane Ouattara, the man regarded by the international community as the winner of November's disputed election. She called the 3 March demonstration to intensify pressure on Gbagbo to step down. "They said that, as women, they had to play their part now," she recalled. "Gbagbo's forces have shot at men but we never thought they would shoot at women."

Toure estimated that about 500 of the demonstrators were either naked or wearing black. "In Africa, and Ivory Coast, this is like a curse," she explained. "That's why the soldiers were afraid and shot at them.

"Some also had brooms and leaves in their hands. They were cursing the rule of Gbagbo, putting a spell on him: 'If you were born of woman, step down; if not, you can stay.' This is why the soldiers were scared.

"The women were whistling and singing and chanting and dancing to encourage Mr Gbagbo to leave. Tanks and Humvees showed up – the women started to applaud them because they thought they were there to support them. But suddenly they started shooting at them. One woman had a baby on her back. She died but the baby survived.

"When I got there it was terrible. People were going mad on the ground. Women were crying and there was blood. Some women were running and others were putting clothes on the corpses. They were saying, 'Gbagbo killed us! Gbagbo is killing us! Please help, please help!'"

The massacre was an appalling test of Toure's self-belief and resilience. "The first feeling I had was guilt. I had called all the mothers and sisters into the street and I felt guilty for what happened. I spent all the day crying, wondering what are we going to do now?

"My second feeling was great pain for those who lost their lives. I could not sleep the whole night and had to take pills. But then I told the women that if we stop here it will be like our friends died for nothing. We have to continue the struggle to honour their memory."

Asked about her feelings towards Gbagbo, she replied: "Disgust. Pity. He is mad. Nobody can do what he did against women. I can't say I hate him because I'm a Christian, but he has to step down. Gbagbo doesn't love Ivorians; the only thing he loves is the presidential seat."

Toure no longer feels safe in her home. As a precaution, the 58-year-old grandmother sleeps at a different address each night. But despite the threat, she said three times as many protesters turned out to mark International Women's Day this week than took part in the 3 March protest.

"We will continue to march until Gbagbo steps down," Toure said. "He killed those women because he wanted to create fear. When a population is yearning for freedom, it has no fear. They were fearless on that day. Today I'm proud as an Ivorian woman to resist dictatorship and choose our own course."

Ivory Coast has had a long tradition of women's activism since before independence in 1960 when wives marched on the city of Bassam to demand the release of leaders jailed by the French colonialists. "Women go on to the streets when men fail," Toure said. "When women go to the streets, it shows the situation is not good."

A women's peace movement in neighbouring Liberia was influential in ending a civil war and forcing president Charles Taylor into exile. The country then chose Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as Africa's first elected female head of state.

But what was shocking by any yardstick last week was the Ivorian army's lethal response – attacking women in such a way had previously been regarded as taboo. It is widely seen as one of the country's darkest days.

Some women feel the world's response has been inadequate. Kandia Camara, a member of Ouattara's government-in-waiting designated to education and women's affairs, said: "We are really disappointed by the international community. It seems that no one wants to help us.

"They are looking at us being killed without doing anything. There is no respect of human life here in Ivory Coast yet no one reacts. We need something right now, not tomorrow, not next week, not next month."

She even compared the situation to a notorious genocide of the 1990s. "We don't want Mr Gbagbo to kill everyone like happened in Rwanda before the international community came to apologise. Act now instead of saying sorry later. We don't want this to be a doctor after death."

Camara, 51, has been holed up at the Golf hotel, guarded by UN peacekeepers and surrounded by Gbagbo's troops, since the November election. She has not seen her husband or children, whose ages range from seven to 20, for nearly four months. Her family is in hiding in Abidjan and she can only communicate by telephone.

"For a mother it's very difficult," she said. "All the women of Ivory Coast plead with the international community to come and help us to stop this mass killing of our women, our children, our men, our country. Ivory Coast is dying because of this man. Mr Gbagbo is not a normal man. He is crazy.

"Please, please, please the UN, the USA, Great Britain, France, Ecowas [the west African regional bloc], the AU [African Union], pity the Ivorian people. We are helpless now. We don't know what to do. It's catastrophic."

images/stories/Guardian_logo.gif London ~ Friday March 4 2011 page 18
Ivory Coast on brink of civil war as seven women killed at protest march
Military says shootings were 'blunder we regret' as once stable nation faces meltdown

Pauline Bax in Abidjan and David Smith in Johannesburg
images/stories/IvoryCoastFemSlaughter.jpg A picture allegedly shows the body of one of the seven women shot dead in Abobo, a working class neighborhood of Abidjan, Ivory Coast (AFP/Getty Images)

Seven women have been massacred during a peaceful protest in Ivory Coast as the country appeared to stand on the brink of all-out civil war.

More than 200,000 people have fled, and the nation that was once a model of stability in west Africa is now experiencing bloodshed and economic meltdown.

The women's demonstration became a scene of terror when security forces opened fire with machine guns in Abobo, a sprawling, impoverished suburb of the commercial capital, Abidjan, where some of the deadliest clashes have taken place during three months of crisis.

They were about to set off from a roundabout on a march to call on Laurent Gbagbo to step down as president. "Men in uniform drove up and started shooting randomly. Six women died on the spot," Idrissa Diarrassouba told Reuters. A seventh died in hospital. Many others were wounded.

There was no official comment but a military source confirmed the shooting. "It was a blunder that we regret," the source said, adding that security forces believe rebels sometimes hide among civilians. "It is unfortunate."

The UN says at least 365 people have died since November's election, nearly all supporters of Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognised winner. The UN said, just after the shooting, that more than 26 people were killed in the past 24 hours in Abobo, where most people come from the country's north.

Multiple delegations of African leaders have come through Abidjan, but Gbagbo has rejected offers of amnesty and comfortable exile abroad if he leaves office.

The UN, other organisations and analysts warn that the country could return to civil war, as in 2002-3, which divided north and south. The International Crisis Group says war is imminent, with skirmishes in Abidjan and the west of the country between militias and army loyal to Gbagbo and the former insurgent New Forces, backing Outtara.

"You cannot predict what the outcome will be," said Issaka Souare, a senior researcher for the Africa conflict prevention programme at South Africa's Institute of Security Studies. "Civil war is not inevitable but it's very likely, depending on how the mediation process will go."

Outside military intervention may now be required, he added. That was first threatened in December by Ecowas, the west African regional bloc of 16 nations.

However, Adekeye Adebajo, the executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution at Cape Town University, warned: "You have a situation that could erupt into civil war. But it could also be a stalemate that continues, which makes Ouattara the big loser. The advantage Ivory Coast has over many other countries in this situation is the presence of 9,000 UN peacekeepers who could maintain the partition."

He added: "There will be more clashes but the soldiers from both sides have not shown much stomach for war since 2002. It would take something dramatic for that to change. They each have half now, so why risk losing it all? And would the UN and French peacekeepers step aside? They have an obligation to maintain order."

In Abobo Gbagbo's forces have been fighting an armed group that emerged last week known as the Liberation Movement of the Population of Abobo-Anyama (the adjacent neighbourhood). The Liberation Movement said its attacks followed weeks of police brutality, arbitrary arrests and abductions of Ouattara supporters. Abobo has also been terrorised for weeks by masked militias and residents believe the armed group consists of rebels from the New Forces movement that has ruled the northern half of the country since 2002, as well as army soldiers who have switched sides. The group now controls a large part of Abobo and Anyama suburbs.

Aid workers and journalists have not been able to get into the area since fighting began last week.

Residents also say that some streets were littered with corpses, which they have had to burn to ward off disease.

"Last week, after the overnight fighting died down, I ventured out to charge my mobile phone and I saw nine bodies," said Seydou Koné, who escaped with his wife and two children during the weekend. "I think they were security forces, but in some cases it was hard to tell."

He saw "many more" bodies later that week, including two policemen, killed because they were suspected of spying for the Gbagbo regime.

More than 200,000 people have fled Adibjan's northern suburbs, according to the UN Operation in Ivory Coast. Its spokesman, Hamadoun Touré, said the armed group is preventing people from leaving. "Entire families, blocked in public places, in churches and parishes, are living in fear and without water or electricity."

In another area of Abidjan, pro-Gbagbo militias hung a tyre around the neck of a "foreigner", what they call people from the north, poured petrol over him and set him alight. Similar incidents have taken place in the interior of the country, with at least six others killed by militias, the Ouattara government said.

These brutal attacks on people who are seen as "foreigners" or "rebels" are unprecedented in Ivory Coast, and have sparked widespread fears of an ethnically motivated civil war.

Meanwhile, the UN has apologised to Belarus for falsely claiming that it broke an arms embargo against Ivory Coast. Alain le Roy, its peacekeeping chief, admitted the erroneous report was a "very bad incident for us".