Banditry, violence, and rape are widespread in Ivory Coast's western provinces even as the country gears for historic national elections, Human Rights Watch said in a report released Friday.
Armed gangs routinely attack people at roadblocks and in their homes, Human Rights Watch said in its report "Afraid and Forgotten: Lawlessness, Rape, and Impunity in Western Cote d'Ivoire."
"While politicians and foreign diplomats have wrangled over election preparations, residents in western (Ivory Coast) are consumed by fear of violent robbery or of being pulled from a bus and raped," said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch.
According to the group, road bandits _ called "coupeurs de route" in French _ target people traveling on market days, when they know victims will be carrying money. The bandits build makeshift roadblocks, often out of tree branches, and surround stopped vehicles. They wear masks and carry Kalashnikovs. Some brandish knives or machetes. After robbing the passengers, they often pull the women from the trucks and rape them alongside the road.
One victim told Human Rights Watch interviewers she was sexually assaulted in front of her husband and father-in-law. Others reported witnessing gang rapes.
Ivory Coast is the world's largest cocoa producer, and banditry is at its highest during the cocoa harvest. Farmers come to town to sell their crops, and buyers circulate with cash. Armed gangs know this is a prime time to target villagers.
The report also said the same men commit violent home invasions in which they rob and rape their victims. Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 80 witnesses and victims and documented cases of sexual assault against women who were nearly 80 and girls as young as 7 months.
"We see cases of sexual violence against children on a regular basis," said Hili Achoumoucho, who until recently ran two child protection centers in western Ivory Coast for Save the Children. "Rape by the 'coupeurs de route' is definitely a serious issue. We've seen three cases in the first week of October alone, each with at least two victims."
The lawlessness that plagues western Ivory Coast _ an area humanitarian organizations call the "Wild West" _ can be traced to a coup launched in 2002. Several years of fighting followed. The country split into two distinct regions, with rebel forces controlling the north while the south remained under government command.
In the western portion of the country, especially the regions of Moyen Cavally and Dix-Huit Montagnes, the rule of law has all but disintegrated, according to Human Rights Watch. Moyen Cavally, with a territory the size of Connecticut and a population of 700,000, has no functioning trial court or prison. Human Rights Watch said victims must pay a bribe to file a complaint. The government estimates that only 35 percent of rapes in the region are reported to police.
Fanta Coulibaly, the head of the national committee for the elimination of violence against women and children, says the government has struggled for years to intervene.
"We've been trying to fight this problem since 2000, but when the war broke out in 2002, we lost our ability to access the region," she said. "Women who wanted to press charges had to travel to Daloa (more than 200 kilometers away) to see the nearest state judge."
Coulibaly said she has spoken personally with President Laurent Gbagbo, who promised funds to send investigators and specially trained police and social workers to the area. The committee also plans to establish a network of victims' centers.
"The crisis allowed this deplorable practice to flourish, but with elections, we are going to see movement on the issue," Coulibaly said.
Associated Press writer Marco Chown Oved in Abidjan, Ivory Coast contributed to this report.