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Ethnic Violence Spreads In Ivory Coast's Cocoa Belt - 2004-07-20


The civil war in Ivory Coast officially ended with a peace agreement 18 months ago, but ethnic violence continues in the country's western and central cocoa producing regions. Hundreds of people are being killed and thousands chased out of their homes.

In a small courtyard in a poor Muslim neighborhood, known as Dar Es Salaam, in the town of Gagnoa, displaced families of Burkinabes huddle inside a dark and dingy shack, waiting for help.

An aid delivery truck from the World Food Program was supposed to arrive for the first time, but the aid agency says it had mechanical problems and was forced to return to Abidjan.

An immigrant farmer from Burkina Faso, Weneda Ouedraogo, says there is no food or medicine for his ailing wife and no cots for his seven children. He says he was forced out of a nearby village last September, just as it was time to harvest cocoa beans.

Like other Burkinabes, Mr. Ouedraogo arrived in Ivory Coast decades ago and became a farmer, buying forest land and turning it into a cocoa plantation. Now, as economic conditions get worse, the indigenous Bete, who are of the same ethnic group as President Laurent Gbagbo, say the Burkinabes are no longer welcome.

The head of the Burkinabe community in Gagnoa, Ousmane Nikiema, reads out a list of Burkinabe families who were recently chased out of small farming villages, their huts burned, and their possessions taken away. There are 780 names on his list.

In another poor neighborhood of Gagnoa, it is thousands of ethnic Senoufo who are being sheltered. They are Ivorians, but the local Betes view them as foreigners, much the same way they view the Burkinabes. Senoufos are of the same ethnic group as Guillaume Soro, the leader of the rebels that control the north of the country.

Fighting in the civil war stopped last year, but the northern rebels are holding onto their weapons until the government of President Gbagbo implements the January 2003 peace agreement. Under the agreement, land ownership and nationality rights would be extended to many northerners who are now considered foreigners.

One of the displaced ethnic Senoufo in Gagnoa, a subsistence farmer who gives his name only as Adama, says he was chased from his land in the village of Broudoume last October, after he was accused of being one of the rebels. He denies this and says he is only a farmer. He says the accusation was just a pretense to grab his land, and he thinks the communal violence has everything to do with his ethnicity.

But the ethnic bloodletting in the region started before the outbreak of civil war in September 2002.

In the nearby town of Siegouekou, only the indigenous Betes remain. They say Malians, Burkinabes and ethnic Senoufo fled the village in late 2002 in fear of revenge, after several Bete villagers were mysteriously killed one night.

Village chief Jean Moise Wanyou says no one knows who committed the murders, but the village is convinced it was foreigners trying to gain control over cocoa plantations. He says the villagers are too frightened now to grow their own food, and desperately need food aid.

The head of an association of immigrants in the Gagnoa region, Innocent Amega, says war and disputes over land ownership make ethnic coexistence difficult. "Our difficulty now is a problem of cohabitation. If you are a stranger, they can suspect you, that is the question," he says. "The land is the problem because before the stranger has paid land to make a plantation, but after the local people, the young people are now not glad."

A local government official in Gagnoa, Marc Gbaka, says the central government can go only so far in helping to resolve ethnic violence. He says the government is otherwise preoccupied with the war between rebels and the army and he says it cannot do everything. He says he has suggested deploying more troops in the cocoa growing region, but was told there are not enough soldiers.

Despite the ethnic violence, overall cocoa output has remained steady in Ivory Coast, the world's leading producer. But experts say the quality of beans has declined and output may soon fall because indigenous farmers and newly arrived southern youths have been unable to replace the labor provided for decades by the immigrant workers.

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