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Ivory Coast Civilians Find Shelter from Fighting in Abidjan Church


Resident walk past shops looted and destroyed in the Abobo district of Abidjan, March 2, 2011

Resident walk past shops looted and destroyed in the Abobo district of Abidjan, March 2, 2011

In Ivory Coast, more than 30,000 people have fled a neighborhood of the commercial capital Abidjan because of fighting between supporters of the country's rival governments. One church has become a sanctuary for some of those displaced.

At the gates of Abidjan's Saint Ambroise Church, young volunteers come early to greet families who are fleeing nearly two weeks of renewed fighting between supporters of incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo and supporters of his rival, Alassane Ouattara.

Many of these displaced left home quickly, packing what they could, but leaving most everything behind. Some are looking for food on their way to somewhere safer. Others have nowhere else to go.

Ange Desire Heliasson, who heads the St. Ambroise parish, says there are two types of people coming to the church: those who spend a day or two in hopes of continuing their journey and those who have nowhere else to go. For those who can move on, the church is helping organize transport with parishioners who are volunteering their trucks.

Most of the displaced come from areas of the pro-Ouattara Abobo neighborhood where Gbagbo troops are fighting militiamen who have taken control of much of the area. Mothers say their children are traumatized by weeks of overnight rocket fire.

Many of the displaced arrive at St. Ambroise with injuries after getting caught up in the fighting. Some have gunshot wounds.

Christian Bosson, who works for the International Committee of the Red Cross, says the most urgent needs here are linked to health. The need for medicine is also linked to hygiene, which is linked to the need for shelter.

Fighting in Abidjan has disrupted the school year and made it hard for many parents to afford another place to live in an economy that is being dragged down by international and regional sanctions against the Gbagbo government. There is a shortage of cooking gas. Civil servants wait for hours to be paid 80 percent of their salaries.

St. Ambroise volunteer Solange N'guessan say the church will be here for these displaced civilians, as long as it takes.

N'guessan says volunteers are trying to help people leave. They cannot abandon them. That is why people have come to the church for protection.

The United Nations says more than 300 people have been killed in post-election violence. More than 70,000 refugees have fled to neighboring Liberia and Guinea.

African Union heads of state meet again Friday in Mauritania, to discuss a peace plan for Ivory Coast with violence here in the commercial capital spreading to other neighborhoods and fighting near the border with Liberia breaking a six-year cease-fire.

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