Opposition activists in divided Ivory Coast have buried youths killed in a pro-peace march last year, while some ministers are rejoining a national unity government. These are signs a difficult South African-mediated peace process is slowly moving forward.
Mothers of opposition activists killed in March last year sang Muslim songs as their sons and daughters were buried in wooden coffins in a grave twenty-meters long and six-meters wide.
Thousands rushed to the gravesite as about 50 of these coffins were put into the ground. Most of them bore names from the north. Three of the coffins were unidentified.
Opposition leaders were present, but no one representing President Laurent Gbagbo was there. Activists said they waited this long to bury the dead they called martyrs, because they were waiting for the state to pay for storage fees at the public morgue.
After the peace march was aborted last year, the United Nations said security forces and militias killed more than 100 people in the streets and in their homes, while opposition leaders say several hundred of their supporters died.
President Gbagbo denied any charges of wrongdoing by security forces and said 37 people died.
At the time, the marchers were demanding President Gbagbo implement a 2003 French brokered peace accord. It was updated last week in Pretoria by the new mediator South African President Thabo Mbeki.
One of those at the burial, Yves Doumbia, said he feels courageous enough now to once again express his views on the streets.
"It is very important because the persons were killed in a march,” he said. “With the new accord, we are optimist but we [stay] prudent because we don't trust the president. We want the Cote d'Ivoire where the peace exists, the peace, the democracy, the freedom, the [real] democracy."
Opposition ministers returned to public view as well to resume work in a national unity government, but only one of nine rebel ministers indicated his intention to take part. Others, including rebel leader Guillaume Soro, stayed away because of continued security concerns.
But opposition minister Zemoaga Fofana told VOA there was still reason for hope the government could finally become operational following the signing of the new accord in Pretoria.
"I think that from Pretoria we are beginning a new way to work together,” he noted. “The members of government have been working everyone for his own party or his movement. Having now a clear view of how [the] electoral process will proceed I think that the government will be working."
Mr. Mbeki wrote a letter to all warring and opposition parties this week, saying Mr. Gbagbo should use his constitutional powers to allow all candidates to run in October presidential elections, the main sticking point in previous unfulfilled peace deals. Mr. Gbagbo's spokesman said this was just a proposal and that the president would begin a series of consultations with groups of Ivorian society Monday.
Africa analyst Kojo Bedu Addo says the fate of the latest peace deal is now in Mr. Gbagbo's hands.
"He cannot be dislodged constitutionally and that position keeps him right at the heart of any fully resolved negotiations," he said.
The army and rebels met in the rebel stronghold of Bouake Thursday, but only agreed to hold a second meeting Saturday. They are trying to set up an exact calendar for the disarmament of rebel fighters, militias and new army recruits as part of the new deal.