Search for justice lags post-war boom in Ivory Coast

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 20, 2015 7:39 AM

By Joe Bavier

BLOLEQUIN, Ivory Coast (Reuters) - Four years after the civil war ended in Ivory Coast the economy is booming, but for men like Yaboua Assie, who lost two young daughters in one of the conflict's most notorious massacres, the justice they seek remains as elusive as ever.

The killings took place in a grassy lot behind the government offices in the small town of Blolequin, an event Assie relives almost nightly in his dreams.

"When I close my eyes, I'm here in this courtyard," he says, gazing around the walled compound, which was meant to be a refuge for those fleeing the 2011 war.

He stands at the edge of a rectangular depression that until recently was a mass grave containing the remains of 45 massacred civilians. Two were his daughters: one 12, the other six months old.

The bodies were exhumed by an investigative unit charged with prosecuting rights abuses during the conflict, in which campaigners say 3,000 people were killed.

The war started when then-president Laurent Gbagbo refused to quit despite losing an election to Alassane Ouattara in late 2010.

Four years later, with Ouattara in power, Ivory Coast is forging ahead - its economy forecast to grow 9 percent this year - but the quest for justice has lagged behind, hampered by lack of government support, rights groups say.

Gbagbo was extradited to the International Criminal Court in The Hague charged with crimes against humanity.

His top political and military supporters were jailed. Dozens, including his wife Simone who is also wanted by the ICC, were convicted in Ivory Coast this year.

By contrast, Ouattara's military backers have received top posts in the army, despite allegations they too were responsible for civilian massacres.

With elections in October, Ouattara is keen to face down accusations of 'victor's justice' from sections of Gbagbo's Ivorian Popular Front party and opposition groups. The president has pledged no-one will be above the law.

Last week, rights groups revealed that around 20 former rebels serving in the army had finally been indicted for alleged crimes committed during the crisis.

But the families of many victims have little faith that those who did the killing will pay for their crimes.

When pro-Gbagbo mercenaries attacked his neighbors that March day in 2011, Assie saved himself and his 5-year-old daughter by playing dead as the bodies piled up on top of him.

"It's war. They say to let it go. And we let it go," he says. "When something is ruined, it's ruined."

A POINTLESS SPECTACLE?

In Abidjan, commercial capital of the world's largest cocoa exporter, the completion of a long-awaited third bridge across the lagoon last year marked a symbolic end to a decade of stagnation following an earlier 2003-2004 civil conflict.

The return of the headquarters of the African Development Bank, which had moved to Tunis in the wake of that conflict, is seen as a sign of a return to stability.

An opinion poll last month by the Washington-based International Republican Institute showed public support for Ouattara. Two-thirds of respondents said the country was heading in the right direction, and more than three-quarters approved of the job being done by the president.

Yet the same polls underlined one of the main failures of his first term: slow progress towards healing Ivory Coast's deeply divided society.

The National Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up in the wake of the conflict recorded the lowest approval rating of the 14 institutions included in the poll at just 37 percent. And just 18 percent of the country's citizens believe justice had been served to all Ivorians following the post-election crisis.

"The slow judicial process and dubious impartiality cast a shadow on reconciliation and mid- and long-term stability prospects," said Gilles Yabi, an analyst and founder of the West Africa-focused think tank Wathi.

Scepticism has bred resistance to the exhumations in some quarters. Justice Minister Mamadou Gnenema Coulibaly, who views them as critical to building criminal cases, questions the motives of those opposed to the process.

"Some think we are looking to incriminate Gbagbo. If they are pro-Gbagbo, they'll act in bad faith," he told Reuters. "Others think we are looking for proof of their own involvement in the crimes and they try to block things."

The government's handling of previous investigations has contributed to the reticence.

Julien Kpahi last saw his brother loaded into an army truck early one morning in 2012 after an attack on a camp for war-displaced civilians outside the town of Duekoue.

Witness accounts implicated government soldiers and pro-Ouattara traditional Dozo hunters in the raid, which took place a year after Gbagbo fell. The government has never acknowledged any role in the violence.

Months later, a survivor led Kpahi to a well where he said his brother's body had been thrown. Under pressure from human rights groups, authorities opened an investigation, removed six bodies from the well and brought them to Abidjan for autopsy.

Kpahi has heard nothing since. Three years later, his brother's remains have yet to be returned.

"I have no hope it will lead to anything," said Kpahi, who was recently prevented from visiting the well by U.N. peacekeepers. "For me, it's pointless ... It's a spectacle."

FIRST STEP

For Human Rights Watch researcher Jim Wormington, this month's indictments of pro-Ouattara commanders were a promising sign but only a first step. Among those formally accused are Lieutenant Colonel Cherif Ousmane, the deputy head of Ouattara's presidential guard, and Lieutenant Colonel Losseni Fofana, another senior commander.

"To prove its commitment to impartial justice, the government should provide the judiciary with the support it needs to finish the investigations and bring the cases to trial," he said.

In Duekoue's Carrefour neighborhood, there are plenty who doubt this will happen. On March 28, 2011, hundreds of people were killed in an area predominantly inhabited by Gueres, an ethnic group seen as among Gbagbo's staunchest supporters.

Here, no amount of economic progress will convince the war's victims to turn the page. And residents like Georges Doue, 51, who lost seven members of his family in the massacre, have little faith the government will investigate the killings.

"There's no trust," he said.

(Editing by Daniel Flynn and Giles Elgood)