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Ivory Coast's War-Displaced Suffer in South

As Ivory Coast's largely stalemated civil war creeps into its fourth year, around a half-million of the country's residents have been forced to flee their homes. Many come to the commercial capital, Abidjan, where resources to help them are scarce and local officials see them as a threat.

Near the busy road leading to Abidjan's international airport, a group of children play on the rubble of what once was their home. Nearby, their mother prepares their dinner in a cooking oilcan that serves as a pot. Tonight they will sleep on the ground outside, as cars speed by.

The neighborhood, in a part of the city ironically known as Akwaba, or "Welcome" in one of Ivory Coast's local languages, was leveled by municipal authorities more than a week ago. A Nigerian pastor, James Amekr, who came here years ago when the neighborhood was largely considered a home for foreigners, was there when it happened.

"On Tuesday morning, I [was] here when they came here with two bulldozers, with about 70 riot policemen. They spent here over four hours," said Mr. Amekr.

Most of the residents were away when the demolition began, out trying to earn enough money to feed their families in this neighborhood where jobs are scarce. Many lost all their possessions when looters arrived in the night and pillaged the wreckage.

Mr. Amekr finds it difficult to understand that, a week later, nothing has been done to help the nearly 4,000 residents, many of whom now live under shelters made from bits of wood, cardboard, and plastic.

"All of them, they are scattered. You can see this lot of small small houses," he continued. "That is where people are sleeping since one week now. You can see it by yourself. Likewise, like that you will see people sleeping outside since one week to today, without any help from the government."

Walking across the mounds of broken concrete blocks that are all that remains of the Akwaba neighborhood, Mr. Amekr comes across a neighbor. Desire Seh Poherou is one of the estimated half-million people displaced by Ivory Coast's civil war.

He says he was frightened for his life when the war broke out in his hometown of Man in the country's west. The scene of some of the fiercest fighting early on, the city was passed back and forth between rebels, government troops, and militias loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo.

Mr. Seh Poherou says he no longer knew who was who, or who was out to get whom. So, he left for the relative security of Abidjan. In Akwaba, where rooms could be rented for as little as $6 per month, he found a place he could afford. He has now lived there for three years.

Around 120,000 internal refugees have found their way to Abidjan, a city with a population estimated at between four- and five-million. Most live in improvised housing and slums. They have not been welcomed with open arms.

Abidjan's district governor, Pierre Dedji Amondji, was responsible for the demolition of the Akwaba neighborhood. He blames the slum dwellers for supporting the rebels in the north and their 2002 attempt to overthrow the president.

"When we understood that the assailants and the insurgents came from the slums, we decided to tear it all down," said Mr. Amondji.

Governor Amondji is just as welcoming towards the newly arrived refugees.

"We allowed everyone to come. We should have just chased them out as soon as they arrived. These people come here under the pretext that there is a war, and we are just supposed to allow this beautiful city to become a city of slums?" he continued.

The day of the demolition, Red Cross Ivory Coast sent a team to Akwaba. But the organization's Secretary-General, Jean Boko Coffi says they are limited in what they can do.

We have more than 8,700 volunteers across the country, he says. Whatever the operation, whenever the Red Cross is needed, we are there. But, he says, more and more often, the lack of means is such that our people intervene with the bare minimum, often with nothing at all.

In 1993, he says, the government, which originally helped found the Red Cross Ivory Coast committee, stopped funding it. Ever since, Mr. Coffi says, they have relied heavily on donations.

Very little assistance has been given to the residents of Akwaba. The Red Cross Ivory Coast team arrived the day of the demolition and treated 64 people. The next day they treated nearly 90. With no plans yet to move the neighborhood's families, many residents, including some of the more than 1,500 children, have begun to suffer from malaria and diarrhea.