Ivory Coast: Was it a massacre?

April 5, 2011 - 0:0

How many died here last week? And was it a massacre?

On a dirt road in Duekoue, the body bags lie in haphazard groups, every hundred yards or so, waiting to be collected. I count 20 within a few blocks.
A Red Cross truck stops to pick them up. Local workers, sweating in the heat, have found another corpse in the bushes. The teams are being closely guarded by United Nations troops. The town is still very tense. All the buildings around us have been burned or looted. I spot four pigs eating something dark in a charred courtyard.
Standing by a newly dug mass grave, a UN soldier from Morocco is choking with rage and grief. ""Five days we've been doing this work,"" he says. ""The stench of bodies..."" I ask him if any of the dead are children. He holds up four fingers, then his head nods down and he begins to sob, quietly, into his facemask.
A group of Ivorian soldiers are sitting in the shade at nearby roadblock. We must have driven through 30 just like it to reach the town. The men are supporters of the man recognized as the winner of last year's elections, Alassane Ouattara. They, and militias linked to them, swept through the region early last week, seizing huge chunks of territory from forces loyal to Laurent Gbagbo, who refuses to cede power. This was one of the few places - leaving aside the main city, Abidjan - where they seem to have encountered serious resistance.
""Us? We didn't kill any of them,"" says a young soldier insistently. ""I was injured myself. It was the militia groups - they were fighting each other."" The UN soldier comes over and wags a finger: ""You mustn't kill them,"" he says. ""If you have prisoners, bring them to the authorities. No more killing."" They nod. But the UN man tells me that they've rescued several prisoners from cars in recent days. They suspect they were being driven out of town to be killed discreetly.
We run into Anne-Marie Altherr, deputy country director for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who is organizing the collection of bodies. ""It's really difficult,"" she says. ""There's been a lot of dead people. It's definitely tough work - especially for the volunteers because they're from here so it's their community.""
But significantly, she says she won't discuss numbers. The death toll has become a hotly disputed, highly sensitive issue. Last week, the ICRC said 800 were killed. Then another aid agency, Caritas suggested 1,000. But the UN has quietly disputed, and scaled down, those figures, and so - furiously - have officials from Ouattara's government.
A car stops beside us and a young man tells me ""the minister"" wants to talk to me, ""immediately."" The UN troops are suspicious and say they'll escort us. We drive into the town centre. The road is lined with what looks like looted, or perhaps rescued furniture.
Konate Sidiki is the local representative of Ouattara's government. He's clearly on a mission to limit the damage that the ""massacre"" allegations may be doing to the internationally backed winner of last November's election.
""Our forces cannot be implicated in any massacre,"" he says. ""I call on all human rights organizations to come to Duekoue. One week after the fight we discover 162 people have been killed. Not 800. Not 1,000. Since we have taken control of the town there is no conflict here. Our aim is to go to Abidjan and chase Gbagbo from power.""
Sidiki is standing at the entrance of a church compound. Inside there are an estimated 40,000 civilians, who have lost their homes or simply fear for their lives. As Sidiki approaches the crowd, an aide mimes for them to clap, and a few duly do so.
We move away to try to talk to the families here, but the same aide follows us. When a man in the crowd starts to tell us that he fears for his life, and can't go home because he is ""scared of the soldiers"" - pointing to the men standing outside the gate - Sidiki's aide intervenes, calling him a member of ""Gbagbo's militia.""
(Source: BBC