Côte d’Ivoire: Even nature can’t disguise the past

“Nature is growing back, making it look like nothing ever happened here.”

When the killing was over bodies were shoved in wells ©Private
When the killing was over bodies were shoved in wells ©Private

Those were the sad words of a tenacious local human rights defender as we drove past the ruins of the Nahibly displaced persons camp just outside the town of Duékoué in western Côte d’Ivoire.

The Nahibly Camp, which was home to about 5,000 people, was totally destroyed on July 20, 2012, in a massive attack by a mob estimated at 1,000, led by local Dozo militias and including members of the national army (FRCI).

At least 14 people – almost certainly more – were killed during the attack. Hundreds more were injured. Many more were rounded up and ‘disappeared’ as they fled the camp. Six bodies have since been found in a nearby well but many others are still missing.

We carried out extensive research in the area last September and heard harrowing stories of the ferocity and brutality of the attack. People were killed and injured by guns, machetes, axes, and clubs and by being burned alive. At that time, about eight weeks after the attack, the signs of the violence were still everywhere. Plastic sheeting, torn and burnt, still hung from wooden frames.

Charred and abandoned clothing and possessions were everywhere. I remember a haunting pair of flip-flops, lying along a pathway, one slightly ahead of the other, as if they had slipped from the feet of someone as they fled.

I wondered whether she or he had reached safety; or not. Touring through the site the clamour and terror of the attack still echoed.

Our local human rights colleague was right, though, five months later it has all faded away. In fact, driving past, if you did not know what had once been there, you would not even take notice.

The remnants of shelters and tents have been dismantled, likely carted away for firewood and other uses. And this area’s lush vegetation has certainly rebounded. What still looked like a scarred battlefield in September is abundant and green in March.

But the human rights defender wasn’t really talking about plants and bushes. What he was pointing out was that the very memory of the Nahibly attack is itself fading away. Like so many other serious human rights violations that have devastated the west of the country in recent years: time passes, there is no justice and impunity only deepens and grows over.

It is the same with respect to massacres in Duékoué’s Carrefour neighbourhood in which as many as 800 people may have been killed at the end of March 2011. On previous missions to the area we have paid quiet respects at a field which is a mass grave in which many of those killed have been buried.

In the past there was something raw and solemn about the site. This time it too was a jumble of grass and weeds and strewn with litter. Nothing solemn. No sign or plaque to mark the tragedy.

We spent time as well in the village of Diahiba, hearing from some of the survivors of a terrible attack here on March 28, 2011- the day before the Duékoué massacre – in which 48 people were killed.

One woman showed us the recently erected tombs in which her mother and younger brother are buried. Her aunt’s body is buried nearby. Two years on they still grieve and try to rebuild their lives; but wonder why there is no justice.

Time passes. Soon after the Nahibly attack, reports emerged, including from a survivor, that people who had been rounded up while fleeing the camp had been summarily executed and disposed of in a number of wells in the area.

It took two months for families and activists to convince the authorities to investigate one of the wells. Six bodies were recovered. At least three of them – two male and one female – were positively identified by family members on the basis of clothing and jewellery on the badly decomposed bodies which were then taken to Abidjan, more than 600 kilometres away, for autopsies.

Four months later the bodies have not been returned and autopsy results have not been shared.

Meanwhile, one intrepid local activist lowered himself by rope into some of the other nearby wells and was able to determine that there are more bodies to be found. Hard to say how many.

Out of fear that whoever is responsible for the killings might want to tamper with the wells, quite extraordinarily, a UN military and police contingent has been stationed in the area on a round-the-clock basis for the past four months.

But that is the extent of what has happened. Officials say that they are trying to figure out the best way to excavate the wells and determine what equipment and material is needed. Meanwhile families in the area still clamour for news of their loved ones.

And time passes. Nature grows over the sites at Nahibly and Carrefour. Corpses deteriorate in the water deep down the well holes. No sign of justice.

There was ironically much talk about justice while we were in the country because the pre-trial hearings in the case of former president Laurent Gbagbo at the International Criminal Court were wrapping up.

Of course there should be full accountability for any human rights violations for which his administration – and all parties to the conflict – are responsible.

Amnesty International documents are replete with the details. But it was striking to hear so much about justice on that side of the conflict and hear and see absolutely nothing on the other side; justice for the violations that forces aligned with the current government have committed.

All of this plays out against a backdrop of continuing insecurity. It is not just about the past. In the west, tensions remain high particularly in rural areas beyond the main towns and villages. Farmers are too fearful to return to fields in more remote areas; because they face threats and attacks from Dozo militia at barricades and on patrols.

Illegal, arbitrary arrest and detention continue to be a major problem in Abidjan and elsewhere. And the cases of former associates Laurent Gbagbo – including his wife Simone who we visited in the house where she has been imprisoned in a remote northwestern corner of the country awaiting trial for close to 18 months – languish and do not proceed. Justice is one-sided, yes, but even then it falls far short of international norms.

In the midst of this we launched a major new Amnesty International report at a well-attended and widely-reported national press conference, stemming from research last fall. The title, “The Victors’ Law,” captures concerns about one-sided justice at what is a critical juncture for Côte d’Ivoire.

This is the time of reconciliation and rebuilding. But unless the country begins to see accountability for all perpetrators of human rights violations and justice for all victims, insecurity will continue to undermine reconciliation.

Grass will grow over and well water will wash over the past. But the past will not be forgotten.

Grieving family members in Diahiba will not forget. Local human rights defenders will not forget. We spoke also with relatives of two of the men whose bodies were recovered from the first well hole. They will not forget.

And Amnesty will not forget. We will continue to stand with Ivorians in the struggle for justice for all.