ABIDJAN (Reuters) - A field where children once played football has become a mass grave, Red Cross officials say, a reminder of lingering fighting between Ivory Coast forces and the last of Laurent Gbagbo’s gunmen.
Red Cross official Franck Kodjo said residents in the Abidjan neighbourhood of Yopougon had told the aid group that about 30 bodies were buried in the field.
“This land will never be used by youth, will never again be suitable for children’s games,” Kodjo said, wiping tears from his eyes. “It is a cemetery in the middle of the neighbourhood.”
Red Cross workers have collected nearly 70 corpses since Tuesday from the nearby streets of the sprawling Yopougon district, scene of the last pocket of heavy resistance since Gbagbo, president since 2000, was ousted last month by his rival Alassane Ouattara’s troops.
The continuing clashes in Yopougon highlight Ivory Coast’s struggle to restore security and ease a dire humanitarian crisis following a post-election dispute in the West African state between Gbagbo and Ouattara, now president.
Gbagbo refused to cede power after a November vote that U.N.-certified results showed Ouattara won, sparking open conflict that killed thousands and displaced more than a million — reopening the wounds of a 2002-03 civil war.
While Ivory Coast is showing early signs of returning to normal since Gbagbo’s ouster — with banks reopening, street traffic flowing again, and the cocoa industry poised to resume exports — the nightmare of war continues for some.
“The situation was terrible. There were militants who terrorised us,” said Stephane Bedjra, who lives with his wife and two children in a part of Yopougon recently secured by Ivorian FRCI troops.
“They were armed and they did whatever they wanted. We lived like this until the arrival of the FRCI, who chased them from the area,” he said.
Automatic gunfire could be heard from the direction of the lagoon, where army commanders said pro-Gbagbo fighters — many of them mercenaries from neighbouring Liberia — had been driven by a days-long sweep to disarm or kill them.
Residents said food and water were in short supply after pillaging and heavy fighting left shops and infrastructure in disarray. In Yopougon, a young girl attempted to drink water from a pipe near homes destroyed by recent explosions.
“I am crying because my five-year-old daughter who has never left my side has gone to Bangolo (village) to be with my mother, because the situation here is hard,” said Christelle Gbelli, a Yopougon resident. “I have stayed because we don’t have money for transport.”
Ouattara has said he expects to restore calm across the country by June, though FRCI commanders said it will be a matter of days before they defeat the remaining pro-Gbagbo fighters in Yopougon.
“The fighting is happening now towards Locodjro,” said Sargent Mory Hassan, standing near 13 prisoners, all stripped from the waist up. “But this will be all sorted out within a few days,” he said.
Security also remains a concern inland from the Atlantic coast, especially in the west where hundreds have been killed in ethnically-driven violence and where armed men still operate.
This has prevented many of the region’s cocoa farmers from returning to their land. Ivory Coast is the world’s No. 1 cocoa producer, making up about a third of global supply.
Ouattara has promised to try to heal the nation’s deep divisions by setting up a South Africa-style truth and reconciliation commission, and has also launched an investigation into Gbagbo and his inner circle for alleged abuses during the post-election power struggle.
Writing by Richard Valdmanis; editing by Mark Heinrich