Poisoned Ivory

Africa | A civil war resumes in Ivory Coast, and thousands of Westerners - including missionaries - must flee

Issue: "Iraq: Fallujah's fallen," Nov. 27, 2004

Since Ivory Coast's last coup two years ago, teachers and students at the International Christian Academy (ICA) have learned to keep "evacuation bags" ready at the first sign of civil strife. In early November, their planning proved necessary.

Hearing the government's Russian-made Sukhoi-25 jets scream over the campus-located just outside the city of Bouake in the nation's rebel-held north-leaders of the missionary school sensed something big was brewing. When the jets bombed security checkpoints and rebel facilities on Nov. 4, then struck a French base and killed nine peacekeepers, they knew they would have to flee again just as they did in 2002.

The French, who for two years have tried to keep peace between north and south, responded to the shock strike against their troops by wiping out Ivory Coast's tiny Air Force earlier this month. Just as ICA teachers and students prepared to leave, the crisis spread from north to south in the commercial capital, Abidjan. For five days mobs loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo went on an anti-French rampage, looting and burning property.

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By Nov. 15, France evacuated 5,000 of its citizens-one-third of the population that had settled in the country since its days as a French colony. White foreigners-anyone who looked French-were open to attack. Several French women were raped. The violence killed at least 60 and injured 1,000.

"As they said at the beginning of the Lord of the Rings films, 'the world has changed,'" wrote Alan Shea, the Christian school's technology coordinator, in an e-mail to friends on Nov. 4.

Ivory Coast, the world's largest cocoa producer, has not always been so volatile. When the West African nation won independence from France in 1960, founding president Felix Houphouet-Boigny made it stable and prosperous, but prosperity hinged on his grip on power. When he died 33 years later, a political struggle was inevitable.

The scrabbling that followed has fractured the country along religious and ethnic lines into the mostly Muslim north-controlled by rebels-and the government-held, mostly Christian south. Clashes erupted between supporters of current president Laurent Gbagbo and his Muslim rival, former prime minister Alassane Ouattara, killing hundreds. In 2002, however, Mr. Gbagbo included Mr. Ouattara in his government and relative calm followed.

Exiled and demobilized members of the military, however, launched a rebellion the same year. By this point rebel groups in the north were multiplying and winning control of the north. Three main ones began collaborating and collectively called themselves the New Forces. In January 2003, the Ivorian government signed a peace deal with them, agreeing to share power. By July, the two sides had signed an "End of the War" declaration.

But the supposed end turned into another plot twist. Reforms changing citizenship rights and eligibility for president, which Mr. Gbagbo promised in the peace deal, did not appear on schedule in September. So the rebels refused to disarm on schedule in October. The government's aerial strafing of rebel strongholds then followed.

The French base, about two miles from ICA, became a target too. Some 4,000 French peacekeepers have helped maintain stability between the north and south, along with 6,000 UN peacekeepers. Despite the Ivorian government's claim otherwise, French army officials believe the strike was no mistake: The planes reportedly flew over the base three times. "To everyone who was there and who experienced it, it was not accidental," Mr. Shea said.

Clint Morgan, regional director for Free Will Baptist International Missions and a former missionary to Ivory Coast, speculates that the air strike was calculated to dial up tensions. "If you provoke the French and the French strike back, it creates further anti-French sentiment." Error or not, he says, "an all-out offensive is in the making. Both sides are repositioning their troops." By Nov. 15, the UN Security Council had slapped a 13-month arms embargo on Ivory Coast, giving the warring parties a month to resume the peace process.

The academy, known locally as the "Baptist school," began teaching missionary children in 1962. When the civil war exploded two years ago, the school made international headlines as fighting trapped its 191 American students and teachers inside campus walls. French forces rescued them.

The evacuation this year was more orderly. After the last crisis, only 38 students and staff members were on campus for the new school year. And they were back at school for only three months before most escaped again Nov. 13. While thousands of Westerners flew out from Abidjan in the south, ICA students and teachers piled into a seven-vehicle convoy and made an 18-hour ground escape northwards into Mali, safely escorted in part by rebel forces.


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