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Civilians Not Impressed by Armed Ivory Coast Rebels

Being armed is what characterizes rebels in conflicts in West Africa and what allows them to pursue their agenda. Rebels in Ivory Coast say they will not disarm until they are given the right to vote in free and fair elections. On a trip to western Ivory Coast, VOA's Nico Colombant spoke with a brash rebel about the effects of being armed, but also found out civilians in the region are not impressed.

At daybreak, rebels run amid traffic through the streets of what used to be a tourist city, Man, in western Ivory Coast.

Beautiful cascades still splash green hills overlooking the city, but its streets -- now nearly impassable -- are also reminders that it is now rebel-run, a mix of anarchy and martial rule by young men with AK-47s.

In what used to be the city's administrator's headquarters, Lacine Amara, is preparing a meeting of top rebel commanders. The mood is jovial. Hardly any weapons are visible.

Mr. Amara explains rebels are not flaunting their weapons, like government forces in the south, but still need to keep them.

"We are living with a population," said Mr. Amara. "It's not useful, important for me to travel, to go everywhere, to go dancing or to go eating with my weapon. No. But I am a military, I need to have my weapon. That's it. With my weapon, the other side is respecting me, because I have my weapon. It's obliged to respect me because I have a weapon, that's very important."

When the war started, more than three years ago, Mr. Amara, known as Las-Com, was a university student in the main southern city Abidjan.

Shortly after the insurgency began, though, Mr. Amara was easily convinced to join the rebellion. He had already been a political activist fighting against what he views as police persecution against Ivorians with northern names and their exclusion from elections both as candidates and voters.

Even though he had never touched a gun, he was sent into battle in Man, in late 2003, the scene of some of the fiercest fighting against government forces. Rebels held on to Man, which is a rich coffee area, but lost towns to the south and were then blocked by French rapid reaction forces from advancing further south.

"I fight and I gain my weapon on the ground, here in Man, I fight in Man and I gain my weapon. I have my, we call it, revolver, and I have an AK-47, like a responsible military," he explained.

Even though he survived the fighting, he says, he will have psychological scars his entire life.

"When you live a war, your mind will forever change. It's terrible," he said. "Because you saw some situation, you live some situation, and it's terrible. For every day now for your life, you will have some kind of situation in your mind. I know what is war, a country in conflict, it's not easy."

Mr. Amara, who left his girlfriend behind in Abidjan, but still hopes to have children with her one day, says he is fighting for the next generation. He wants it to have a freer, fairer and more prosperous Ivory Coast.

"I pray God that Ivory Coast will recover tomorrow for the children," he added. "Today, we have some problems, our education for children, we have some social, humanitarian, problems, you will see that in the city. It is not easy, even first for some citizens to cross from Abidjan just coming to Man, it's not easy. Why? We need to go to peace. But before going to peace, we need to have solutions, to problems, to reasons why we take weapons, that's very important. And, we will only disarm with the one word of our Secretary-General, Soro Guillaume, just one word and we will disarm, that's very very important."

Further west, less than 100 kilometers away from Man, after a dozen barricades where armed rebels demand money for what they say is their cup of tea, lies the city, Danane.

Here rebels have cut off all phone lines and networks. There is no post office. Rebels also seem divided between the local ethnic Yacoubas, who are friendlier with civilians, and fighters brought in from other northern areas.

Danane, which is near the borders with Liberia and Guinea, has become a town filled with crooks, smugglers and intimidation.

Sitting at a local bar, a hairdresser with no work, Martial, is not impressed with rebel rule and the weapons being carried by some of his former classmates. He says they have only made Ivory Coast more divided and militarized.

"We want for the war to finish," he said. "I don't want to see any gun, and young men here again. I don't want to see any gun. I want for the war to be slowed, finished because we have some parents behind in Abidjan, they are all the way there, we want to see them."

He says, even if he agrees with their goals, he does not believe taking weapons will ever solve anything.

"We are in a democracy," he added. "Somebody do something that you are not happy, you got to work, or you say, 'no, no.' But to take gun… no."

A new prime minister has recently been named for Ivory Coast, former regional banker Charles Konan Banny. The international community has charged him with ensuring disarmament as well as preparing free and fair elections before October 2006.