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Memories of War

Edwige-Renée Dro



If we are to speak of Here & Now, let’s speak of then.


Legitimacy


In 1999, Côte d’Ivoire knew its first coup d’Etat. A coup d’Etat that surprised even battle-weary journalists and other Western experts on Africa. No one had particularly paid any attention to the sounds of guns sporadically fired in Abidjan on December 23rd; some journalists would later say they thought that Ivorians were simply celebrating early. But soon the rumours started flying – there was a coup underway.


Not possible, many said. Côte d’Ivoire didn’t have the type of generals who did coup d’Etats. They were living room generals, preferring the air-conditioned plush living rooms with comfortable sofas rather than the harshness of the battlefield.


At around 10am, the coup was confirmed. First on Radio France Internationale, RFI, then on national television and radio. Robert Guéi, a retired general, was the spokesperson for the young mutineers sent on a UN peacekeeping mission to Central Africa whose stipends had not been paid. He was not the instigator of the coup; he’d been in his village decorating his house for Christmas when these young mutineers came for him, he said, and the young mutineers corroborated his story. As he went on to add, he only came to sweep the house. Power held no appeal for him, he assured, for had it been the case, he would have done a coup in 1993 when President Houphouet died after 33 years in power, or even earlier, for he had the same aptitudes as his fellow brothers-in-arms in other countries. He would prove that he had aptitudes to be President when he began appearing in 3-piece suits a few months into the coup d’Etat and stood as a candidate in October 2000.


But on that morning on December 24th, the country seemed too dazed to hear anything. What was the behaviour to adopt in these circumstances? As Côte d’Ivoire went through further upheavals in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2010, 2011, 2017, 2020, we knew what kind of behaviour to adopt. Ensure that there is adequate storage of water in the house. Ensure that there are non-perishable goods in the house. Ensure that there is money, CFAs, and foreign currencies if possible. Identify a place of refuge. Leave Abidjan. Leave the country itself if you’re really serious. Ensure that there are enough candles. Sleep on the floor. Do not, under any circumstances, talk about politics, and stay indoors. But in 1999, we did not know this. My mother being a trader, we lived above her shops in the commercial centre, and in Yamoussoukro where we lived, it seemed like the coup was really taking place in Abidjan. Nonetheless, we closed the shops, and all went home or so we thought, until we realised that my mother had stayed behind to do some inventories, she said, when my father called her. We’ll also know with further upheavals that phone calls do not go through, but what did we know then?


“Are you crazy? Don’t you know that there is a coup d’Etat!” This was the first time I had heard my father raise his voice at my mother, and I began to realise that we were maybe living in unprecedented times.


He went out and a few minutes later, he was back home with our mother, who was smiling as if a coup d’Etat was a normal occurrence in the affairs of Côte d’Ivoire. From our balcony, we could hear people gathered in little groups, discussing the coup.


Non, mais, c’est pas possible!


Bédié is calling for a resistance. Indeed, the deposed President was appealing for support on Radio France Internationale, qualifying the coup d’Etat as a grotesque affair.


That short man should shut up.


It’s because he’s at the 43e BIMA, that’s why he still has a mouth on him, others said, referring to the fact that the President had finally decided not to celebrate Christmas in his village located in the centre of the country, making instead the wise decision to stay in Abidjan. His saving grace, because on that morning of December 24th, he was able to go to the residence of the French Ambassador, and then on, to the 43e BIMA, the French military base located south of Abidjan, near the airport.


There were others who were not interested in the dick-swinging contests of the two men. General Guéi told Bédié, via national television, that a man does not run away. He also warned Radio France Internationale to stop giving President Bédié a platform. He told the French ambassador that the die was cast where Bédié was concerned and that the young mutineers were overexcited and as such, an exile plan should be put in place for President Bédié. He finally warned that if the French were to involve themselves in this crisis that was Ivorian, there would be a bloodbath.


We are here to sweep the house but let no one forget that we are military people.

 

Côte d’Ivoire has really fallen. We’re going to be like these Ghanaians and Nigerians and Liberians. Dear God, not us! Some said, in that characteristic way that Ivorians have, of making a joke of everything.


The religiosity then was superficial; Côte d’Ivoire had not yet become the country where people saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary in palm nut stews. It had not become the country where army generals compared themselves to little David fighting the Goliath French.


In 2001, I left the country for university in England and lived through the upheavals my country went through from afar, and that is why for a long time, I didn’t feel that the war that Côte d’Ivoire went through from 2000 to April 2011 was mine to write about.


For starters, not many Ivorians refer to events of that period as “a war”; it is The Crisis, The Events, and even then, these terms are used only in reference to the post-electoral crisis that took place from November 2010 to April 2011 when President Gbagbo, who in his own words, “came to power under calamitous conditions” in 2000, held onto power, demanding a recounting of the ballots cast in the Presidential election of 2010. That period of 6 months saw another round of incessant comings and goings of Heads of States, officials from the African Union, ECOWAS, the UN in the country whose mission it was to reach a peaceful resolution to the crisis. But how could a peaceful resolution be reached when each of the camps was holding onto their respective position?


President Gbagbo called again and again for a recount of the ballots cast. His opponent Alassane Ouattara took refuge at the Golf Hotel, in fear of reprisals from President Gbagbo’s militia or army and turned the hotel into his base. The hotel came to be referred to by Ivorians as The Golf Republic.


The president of the Constitutional Court proclaimed Gbagbo as President-Elect with 53% of the ballots cast. The president of the Independent Electoral Commission took refuge at the Golf Hotel and proclaimed Ouattara President-Elect. Both presidents did their swearing-in.


The towns and cities that had been under government control after the 2002 rebellion that cut the country in two began to fall one by one at the hands of those who now went by the name of Les forces Nouvelles, previously known as the rebel army. The fall of some of the cities had more symbolic value than others. Yamoussoukro for instance. Despite every ministry, embassy and political institution being in Abidjan, the fall of the political capital was a symbol. So was the fall of Gagnoa, the birthplace of President Gbagbo. By March 2011, every town and city in Côte d’Ivoire had been taken and in early April, the rebel/legitimate army was at the door of Abidjan for what would become known as La bataille d’Abidjan.


The international community, with the UN at its helm, continued to call on President Gbagbo to stand down. France, whose name has been vilified since 2002 in this conflict, called on Gbagbo to stand down. The Ouattara Camp called for a blockade and an embargo.


Food became scarce in Abidjan and there were more and more power cuts with some neighborhoods being completely plunged into darkness day in, day out. The elements of the police, the gendarmerie, and the military, still faithful to the Gbagbo regime held their counterparts at bay, and Abidjan became the terrain of guerilla warfare and neighborhoods being opposed to one another. The two biggest neighborhoods of Abidjan – Yopougon and Abobo with a population of respectively 1.5 and 1.1 million people – became the fighting terrain to the two armies that Côte d’Ivoire now counted. The forces Nouvelles, faithful to the Ouattara regime and now being referred to as the legitimate army, occupied Abobo reputed to be the fiefdom of Ouattara because of a higher concentration of Ivorians from the North of the country and as the logic went in Côte d’Ivoire then, favorable to President Ouattara, born in Dimbokro, the centre of the country but bearing a name that originates from the north. As for the army still faithful to President Gbagbo, it occupied Yopougon, reputed to be the bastion of the President and where the multi-party system was born.


Charles Blé Goudé, the youth minister in Gbagbo’s newly elected government and previously known as the General of the Street, harangued the youth in open-air meetings in his inimitable style: polo T-shirt, Jeans, hat, hands raised. He called on young people to enrol in the army to fight for the mother country and denounce the meddling of France in the affairs of a sovereign nation.


International airlines suspended their flights to the country in the early hours of the skirmishes, some as early as November 2010.


Hunger swept the country because it was difficult to venture out on streets where bullets were flying. Hospitals were operating with minimal resources and there were difficulties in accessing medication because of the embargo. But one must live, so people ventured out, coming face to face with all kinds of fighters; those who did their training at military schools, those who trained in sacred forests, mercenaries with bloodshot eyes, more fluent in English, even if it was of the broken variety.


People slept on floors in their houses. My parents told me of episodes where they had to sleep in their garden, among banana plants, of the military coming to our home because they suspected my father of being affiliated with General Robert Guéi, what with them being from the same region. Thankfully, my mother speaks three of the languages of Côte d’Ivoire, and the broken French of people who didn’t go to school, so she spoke to the different soldiers who came to our house. To this group in Baoulé, to that other group in Bambara and yet to this other one, in French, presenting her credentials: neither she nor her husband were involved in politics – my parents having refused all involvement in politics even when they were asked to stand for local elections in towns not their birthplace or campaign for that General Guéi. She was a trader.


President Gbagbo would not relent, asking for a recount of the ballots cast. He gave interviews, looking drawn, sounding tired. In one of the last interviews he gave, he admitted to being tired. He and a few faithful had decamped to a bunker beneath the Presidential palace.


“Why is it so difficult to recount the votes?” he pondered in interviews.


General Philippe Mangou broke away on March 31st and made allegiance to the Ouattara camp from the South African embassy where he’d taken refuge.


Yopougon fell, and one by one, the 9 remaining neighborhoods of Abidjan. The fight was now taking place around the residence of President Gbagbo. In homes or what remained of them, a few voices were wondering why President Gbagbo wouldn’t give up the fight.


On est fatigués.


Hospitals were running on empty. Rubbish was piling up and bodies littered the streets.


Diehards, known as the Gbagbo ou rien – Gbagbo or nothing – held on, but even some were beginning to mutter, on est fatigués, despite the admiration they had for the one whom they said called for a multi-party system as early as the eighties, went into exile because of his political opinions, formed the first opposition party in 1990 and dared to stand against the all-powerful Houphouet in the presidential elections that same year, became president and exposed the treachery of the French and their intense meddling into our affairs.


On March 31st, Brussels Airlines announced that it was resuming its flights to Côte d’Ivoire. The end was in sight. We didn’t exactly know when that would be, but if a Western airline, which left in November when the fight was not as intense as it now was, was returning, then something was afoot.


On April 11th, Désiré Tagro, the then Interior Minister who was with Gbagbo in the bunker, waved a white flag and soon, the wall separating the bunker from the main residence came crumbling down. The wall had been built by the Gbagbo regime to block off the passageway built by the Houphouet regime in the 60s, between the Presidential palace and the French ambassador’s residence. Those in the know, including Gbagbo himself, said that what the cameras didn’t show was the French army breaking the wall then standing aside to let Les Forces nouvelles claim a victory they wouldn’t have won otherwise. But that will be a conversation for another generation to wrestle with. It would be up to it to ask questions about the legacy of Gbagbo and make sense of the despair for some and jubilation for others at seeing an ex-president paraded on TV channels. It will ask, was it necessary? In the meantime, there were pressing issues to deal with.


I was in England when I heard the news. Since November 2010, I had been following the news with fear and worry gripping my heart. Is this how you lose your family? My brother was in Abidjan and had been unable to get in time to our family home in Yamoussoukro and was thus caught up in La bataille d’Abidjan. A few times my calls went through, and I was glad to know that he was still alive. At other times, he would tell me not to call him, because he might not be able to answer or because it would be dangerous for him. It had not even crossed my mind that I was endangering my brother’s life with my calls. I didn’t know that while my struggle was at soul’s level, his was more physical, involving hiding in gutters, sometimes under corpses, and like me, not always able to contact our parents because calls were jammed, and who knows who was listening. The last phone call I successfully made to my parents was in December. The next time we spoke was on April 13th when they informed me that my brother was finally home in Yamoussoukro.


My mother had left Yamoussoukro at 6am, 24 hours after the fall of Gbagbo, for Abidjan. During the war and even before, she and my father had organised their lives according to their strengths. Being the educated one, a stickler for details and fortunately or unfortunately, a person who saw life in black and white, my father’s role was to deal with paperwork, the administration, accountants, and anything that a black and white inflexibility would do. My mother oversaw human relations and with a situation that was still confused, with undercurrents of tribalism and a them (Muslim/Northerners) against us (Christians/Southerners) mood prevailing in the country, Maman knew that she could better deal with the situation for she could pass, in her boubou and headscarves she tied the way of a woman who’s been to Mecca and her impeccable Bambara, the language spoken by many combatants of the Forces Nouvelles. To put every chance on her side, she chose to go to Abidjan with her driver, who was a Northerner and a Muslim. Yamoussoukro is 2 hours away from Abidjan; that April 12th, it took them 4 hours to reach Abidjan and a further 3 hours to reach my brother in Cocody where he was. She spoke of the bodies that littered the streets, of asking her driver to inconspicuously wait a few metres away from the university campus where my brother had taken refuge and call him, of pretending to be a mad woman so as not to raise the suspicions of the soldiers milling around as she approached the campus, wailing of having lost everything, of the money she paid at different checkpoints to the soldiers, mercenaries, young people to ‘buy water with’. She spoke of bundling my brother in the boot of the car, only letting him out when they reached the borders of Yamoussoukro, where she could somewhat breathe because she was on safer territory.


If I never felt legitimate until now to write about the war, it was because I was not in the country. I wasn’t the one who heard guns being fired. I didn’t live under any curfews. In fact, every time I use the term “war” as opposed to “crisis” or “events”, I’m asked if I was in the country during the events. Not that being in the country counts for anything; it seems that if you were not in Abidjan, then you have no right to speak about the events. But Abidjan is not Côte d’Ivoire, and the country has been plunged into violence since 2002. My grandparents lived in a rebel-controlled territory; my aunts faced the threat of rape and other violence as they left Man for Yamoussoukro to get money because money transfers were not working, and going back to Man with the money folded and hid in their underwear. When it looked like the country would plunge headlong into a civil war in 2004 and the rebel army was about to take Yamoussoukro, my father called us, my sister and I, to say goodbye. Nonetheless, as a citizen of Côte d’Ivoire, should my citizenship not count as enough legitimacy for me to ponder the affairs of my country, regardless of whether I am there or not?



 

Edwige-Renée Dro is a writer, literary translator, and literary activist from Côte d’Ivoire. Her short stories and articles have been published in anthologies such as New Daughters of Africa, Africa39, the Eastern African Literary and Cultural Studies, This is Africa, etc. As a literary translator, she has mentored emerging literary translators as part of the Bakwa Literary Translation workshop that birthed the anthology: Your Feet Will Lead You Where Your Heart Is / Le crepuscule des âmes soeurs. She is also the translator of the anthology Les oiseaux d’eau sur la rive du lac / Water birds on the lakeshore (English and French), the children’s book: Rêve d’oiseau by Shenaz Patel (A Dream of Birds – English), the short story: Petit Pa by Hemley Boum (Little Pa – English), etc. In 2020, she founded 1949: the Library of women’s Writings from Africa and the black world in Abidjan.



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