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Life In Northern Ivory Coast: No Longer Second Class Citizens - 2004-02-27

People living in the rebel-held north of Ivory Coast have few jobs, and lack such basic services as health and schooling. But many say they don't mind living under the rebels, because they feel they are not relegated to second-class citizenship.

A Muslim man prays, while several of his friends drink tea in a grimy street nearby.

They say they don't have much to do, so they have turned to learning more about their religion. Around their house, like elsewhere in Bouake, there are piles of uncollected trash.

Since rebels took over northern Ivory Coast in September 2002, most basic services have been shut down, and most government workers who fled the area have yet to return.

But residents who remain seem content, even if life has become more difficult. Many say they are happy the rebels have become the authorities here, because they no longer feel like foreigners.

Some of the people say they are ready to hold out, until a stalled peace agreement, under which they would become citizens equal to southerners, is implemented.

In a central market, one merchant, Alassane Toure, says rebels are ensuring adequate security and that, slowly, business is picking up again.

He says many residents who fled the north at the start of the war are now returning, and that they feel at ease under rebel control.

Another merchant, who refuses to give his name, says he is not complaining, but would like to see banks reopening, so that more money can circulate in the area.

He says the lack of banks is making it very difficult to start new businesses. He says he hopes the United Nations will soon send international peacekeepers to help French soldiers already on the ground to help stabilize the situation in Ivory Coast.

In the meantime, he says, people help each other out like a big family. Friends and relatives who are in the south, or in neighboring countries have been able to send cash through front lines, but businesses cannot operate without a banking system.

A top political rebel leader in Bouake, Mamadou Togba, says one of his main priorities is to try to convince banks to reopen in the north.

He says bank officials are expected to visit the north from the commercial capital next month to see if they can re-open some branches. He says bankers are worried about security.

Mr. Togba says the rebels can ensure public security.

In social and health matters, however, aid workers say the situation is more alarming. At the headquarters of the United Nations Children's Fund in Bouake, the head of emergency operations, Dr. Alphonse Toko, says he is worried about the lack of schools in the north, hospitals -- just two are operating -- and a possible rise in H-I-V / AIDS in the region.

He says programs to fight H-I-V/AIDS in schools and hospitals ended with the war. The risk of infection, he says, is increasing, with schools closed and promiscuity on the rise.

Most of the rebel soldiers in Bouake are in their teens or early 20s. They say they were in school when the war started, and joined the rebellion.

The military head of the rebels, Colonel Sinima Bamba, says efforts are being made to help the young men under his orders.

He says when fighters were at the frontlines of the conflict, they couldn't really think about H-I-V / AIDS. Now, he says, he is organizing the distribution of condoms, and encouraging some of the younger rebels to return to school.

Some schools reopened this week in Bouake, but not many students showed up. Teachers are scarce, and school buildings dilapidated. So, most of the youth spend the day in the streets, drinking palm wine, playing checkers and cards, or doing nothing.