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Ivory Coast, UN Agencies Try to Deal With Plight of  Internally-Displaced People - 2003-05-23

A major challenge facing the power-sharing government in Ivory Coast is the plight of about 700,000 internally-displaced people.

During the Ivorian civil war, which began in September, civilians fled fighting and ethnic persecution in all parts of the country.

Thousands of immigrants escaped from the main southern city of Abidjan after several poor immigrant neighborhoods were burned down as part of the army's security operations.

The government accused foreigners of being behind the insurgency, making immigrants feel uneasy about staying in Abidjan.

Civilians also fled from the north and the west when fighting involving rebels, mercenaries and the Ivorian army broke out in those regions.

At this displaced people's camp run by the United Nations in a government-controlled area in western Ivory Coast, homeless Ivorians live in squalid conditions. And they complain their food is being stolen by local authorities.

Cocoa and coffee planter, Andre Nguessan, says he came to the camp with his wife and six children after Liberian mercenaries fighting for the Ivorian army chased him off his land.

He explains it's not safe to leave the camp. Mr. Nguessan says if you leave the camp, your head will be cut off like a chicken. He says one young man was recently shot dead by pro-government mercenaries while looking for food outside the camp.

Another planter who is staying at the camp, Robert Koisse, says it's not surprising the young man was killed, because, he says, he was a northerner.

Mr. Koisse is waiting for the new government to really take charge and return order to Ivory Coast. He says his land in the west was burned by rebels coming from the north, and that only the new power-sharing government can rectify the situation.

Rebels and the army recently agreed to stop fighting and to chase all Liberian mercenaries out of western Ivory Coast. French and African peacekeeping troops are being deployed in the west next week.

Now that security is slowly returning, the new minister of solidarity, Clothilde Ohouochi, is spearheading efforts to better assist displaced Ivorians. She emphasizes she will continue to use the help of United Nations agencies.

"Ivory Coast has never experienced such a crisis," she says. "We want to help the displaced people the best we can and since U.N. agencies have the expertise in this field it is very beneficial for us to cooperate with them and make sure we can give quality assistance to vulnerable Ivorians."

Most of the displaced people went to live with their families, making it more difficult to give them access to aid. But the government has started identifying host families, thanking them for their generosity and also distributing food to them directly.

In the main city Abidjan, where more than 30,000 people were forced to flee after several slums were burned down in the first weeks of the conflict, an association of non-governmental organizations is funding the construction of 3,000 homes.

The government, non-governmental organizations and U.N. agencies are also working on establishing a humanitarian code of conduct for rebels, peacekeepers and the army in the west of the country. Civilians there have complained of human rights abuses committed by all sides of the conflict.

Aid worker Sayre Nyce from the Washington-based group Refugee International says problems related to ethnic persecution also need to be addressed, especially related to the issue of land ownership.

She explains that current laws which exclude non-Ivorians from being landowners are discriminatory. Some ethnic groups are considered Ivorian, while others are not, further complicating the problem.

This situation led to sporadic violence between different ethnic groups over land claims even before the civil war started. Ms. Nyce says the war inflamed ethnic tensions and that a new legal framework needs to be established to avoid a recurrence of the violence.

"We're doing advocacy right now on the need to address the xenophobia and to change the xenophobia laws and attitudes," she says. "If those aren't changed that could compromise all these attempts at a peaceful resolution to the conflict. We're worried there could be even more displacements."

A peace agreement reached in January that is being slowly implemented calls on the reconciliation government to address the land ownership problem as well as the nationality issue.

They are among many aspects of the ongoing crisis in Ivory Coast that are affection the hundreds of thousands of displaced people around the country.