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After War, Malnutrition In Ivory Coast - 2003-12-18

While steps are being taken in Ivory Coast to bring rebels back into a power-sharing government, tens of thousands of civilians displaced by the civil war are facing worsening economic problems that are leading to malnutrition. The situation is particularly difficult in the administrative capital Yamoussoukro, which is close to rebel headquarters.

Displaced people at the Mie-Gou center in Yamoussoukro prepare the night's meal -- rice and sauce.

The children will be fed first and if there's enough left over, adults will be able to eat some.

Sister Sophie Myriam, the Catholic nun who runs the center, says humanitarian aid from the government and international agencies has been almost completely shut off since April.

She says for a while medicine ran out, so minor health problems were aggravated. In recent months, four children have died.

Local officials say they don't visit the center anymore because it hurts them too much to see the displaced people suffer.

One of the center's residents, Archille Tehoua, fled the rebel stronghold of Bouake soon after the insurgency started in September of last year. Bouake is just an hour by car north of Yamoussoukro, which has just bare land and barricades surrounding it.

"Life is becoming very difficult for us here. We have no work, no money, no medicine. The Catholic nun here is really killing herself to help us. But we have become very vulnerable. We have nowhere to go and donors are not giving us any help anymore."

Mr. Tehoua is in charge of maintaining the center's showers. There are two of them for about 500 people.

Right next door to the Mie-Gou center for displaced people, the Kohouri household is now up to 22 people.

The head of the household, Guy Kohouri, is a retired schoolteacher. The cousins, nephews and siblings now staying in his home fled northern rebel-held areas.

His wife, Elizabeth, has bought a big pot to cook for everyone, but she says it has been difficult to afford enough food to fill the pot.

"Before we used to eat three times a day, morning, lunch and dinner. But now with the arrival of the displaced relatives, we are suffering. All our retirement savings are being drained. Sometimes there is no food left at all. We don't take anymore kilos of rice now we just buy cups of rice, but it's not enough. So the children eat rice, but the adults sometimes eat just bananas."

Tens of thousands of other displaced people in several camps and thousands of host families in Yamoussoukro suffer from the same difficulties.

National parliament member Pale Dimate says he is aware of the problems. Mr. Dimate is head of the assembly's commission for social affairs.

But he says the government just does not have the resources to help people displaced by the civil war.

"We have the duty to help these people but we don't have the means. Displaced people are hungry so we are hoping next year, humanitarian agencies and western donors might be able to come through and help. Or else the social problems will escalate."

The Japanese embassy recently donated about 30-thousand dollars to help displaced people in Yamoussoukro. The money was used to distribute two tons of rice to the Mie-Gou center and to 40 families who are hosting displaced people in their homes.

The donation is also being used to conduct sex-education campaigns. Social workers say the precarious existence for displaced people is increasing prostitution and the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, such as HIV/AIDS.

Sister Myriam says she accepted the Japanese donation with joy but also with what she calls a pinch to her heart because she knows so much more help is needed.

Ivory Coast, the world's leading cocoa producer, used to be West Africa's economic powerhouse with the region's highest standard of living. But since the war divided the country in two, unemployment, poverty and now even malnutrition are on the increase.