ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — It seemed like a case of simple blackmail. Late one night last month, two cars carrying around 10 soldiers pulled up to a group of prostitutes in Abidjan's Vallon neighborhood and began demanding bribes.
To save themselves, some of the women in the group approached the soldiers and told them what they knew would divert their attention: They pointed to a sex worker cowering among them who goes by the street name of Raissa. And they sold her out.
The soldiers cornered her, stripped her and discovered her secret: Raissa, who requested that her real name not be used out of fear for her safety, is not a woman at all, but rather a man dressed as one. They savagely beat her with their belts.
Such scenes have become routine since the Republican Forces of Ivory Coast assumed control of Abidjan in April 2011 at the end of a five-month conflict to oust ex-President Laurent Gbagbo and install his elected successor, Alassane Ouattara.
In interviews with The Associated Press, five victims and activists say transgender sex workers have been regularly stripped and beaten. In the most extreme case, those dressed as women who were discovered to be men were held overnight at military camps and raped with Kalashnikov rifles, they say. Others charge their heads were shaved with broken beer bottles.
Raissa said she has endured three attacks during which she's been stripped, beaten and forced to beg for her life as soldiers threatened to shoot her.
"With the rage that's in their eyes, you never know when they'll stop," she said.
"It's hard to talk about the first time or the second time because it's just happened so many times," said a transgender sex worker who goes by the street name, Sara. "No one has escaped the army."
Unlike many West African countries, homosexuality is not explicitly outlawed in Ivory Coast, though committing an "outrage against public decency" with a same-sex partner is punishable by up to two years in prison and fines starting at $100. But victims say entrenched homophobia at all levels of the security forces left them with no outlet for filing complaints.
"Who would I file a complaint with and where?" asked one victim. "No matter where you go you're going to get hit for that."
The allegations from the transgender sex workers come as the army, known by its French acronym of FRCI, is facing greater scrutiny over alleged human rights abuses. In recent months, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have documented torture against detainees suspected of involvement in attacks on military positions dating back to early August. The AP reported in October that detainees in the western port city of San Pedro were being subject to electric shocks.
The abuse of transgender sex workers, however, began long before the recent attacks and subsequent crackdown. Victims said they immediately noticed a difference under Ouattara compared to the Gbagbo years, when such abuses were not nearly as extreme or widespread.
Ouattara signed a decree creating the FRCI in March 2011, and it was composed primarily of members of the New Forces rebel group, which used to control Ivory Coast's predominantly Muslim north. Victims almost uniformly attribute the attacks to the fact that many soldiers in the new army are Muslim.
During one attack in Abidjan's Zone 4 district in July, Raissa said a soldier invoked the Quran in justifying the violence. "He said, 'In the Quran it says that when you kill a homosexual you go to heaven,'" she recalled.
Claver Toure, executive director of the gay and lesbian group Alternative Cote d'Ivoire, said that while many transgender sex workers believed the soldiers' religion was fueling the violence, he suspected it had more to do with their limited education and lack of exposure to Abidjan's nightlife culture - which is far more freewheeling than the conservative interior.
"They came from the bush up in the north. They can't read. They don't have an open mind," Toure said. "They came to Abidjan just because of the post-election crisis and they saw gay people for the first time in their lives. And they thought, 'Oh, that's what that is. That's what we call homosexuality.'"
Matthew Thomann, an anthropologist and doctoral candidate at American University who has investigated the attacks as part of his research, said they were part of a broader pattern of abuses against all sexual minorities by the security forces.
The most recent United States State Department Human Rights Report for Ivory Coast said that in 2011 "there were reports security forces targeted LGBT individuals for abuse." A report produced by local and international NGOs for the October session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights said sexual minorities in Ivory Coast were targeted daily for arbitrary arrest, violence and intimidation. The report said Ivorian authorities had failed to investigate or even acknowledge the abuses.
Thomann said the most extreme abuses targeted transgender sex workers. "They're the marginalized of the marginalized," he said.
Several transgender sex workers said direct physical violence had declined somewhat as soldiers have grown accustomed to their presence. But they haven't gone away by any means. In late September, a sex worker named Jennifer was taken back to a military base in Vallon after a run-in with the soldiers. For two hours, soldiers beat Jennifer and three other sex workers with belts and anally raped them with assault rifles.
"The whole time, they just insulted us and said, 'You're crazy. You're going out dressed as women to sell yourself. You're cursed," she said. "The soldiers treat us like slaves. They can do whatever they want."
The four women were forced to sleep naked on the ground outside the camp buildings. They were released at noon the next day with no money to get home.
The commander at the military camp in Vallon declined to comment for this story, and military spokesmen could not be reached.
Matt Wells, West Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch, called for the abuses to be investigated.
"The Ivorian government has sat idly by for far too long as soldiers flaunt their impunity and wreak havoc on vulnerable populations," Wells said. "Authorities should immediately investigate the targeting of transgender sex workers for harassment and abuse and bring those responsible to justice."