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Christmas in Abidjan: A Celebration Under Curfew - 2002-12-24

Christians in Abidjan are trying to make the best of a difficult situation as they prepare to celebrate Christmas under curfew, while their country is torn apart by war. The curfew is putting a damper on most holiday celebrations.

Christmas carols blare through speakers outside an Abidjan supermarket, as shoppers inside rush through the aisles gathering last-minute supplies for Christmas dinner.

They need to hurry because the store is closing early, not because of the holiday, but because Abidjan is under curfew. Everyone needs to be off the streets by 7:00 p.m. or they run the risk of getting shot by soldiers enforcing the dusk-to-dawn curfew.

Inside the packed grocery store, a visitor might never know that this is a country at war. There are no shortages of anything - plenty of French wine on the shelves and at least 20 varieties of French cheese. For those who can afford it, there is beef imported from South Africa. For everyone else, there are locally raised chickens to cook for the Christmas meal.

But the grocery store is possibly the only thing that feels normal in Abidjan this holiday season. Most people's celebrations will not be what they usually are.

For example, there can be no Midnight Mass this Christmas Eve, a traditional religious service celebrated by Christians around the world. The mass is particularly important to Roman Catholics, of whom there are many in Ivory Coast.

The curfew has also curtailed are other specifically Ivorian traditions, as a last-minute shopper who gave her name only as Miss Koffi explained. She said, Ivorians usually love to go out to holiday shows or parties during the Christmas season. But this year it will be hard to do that. Instead, Miss Koffi says, she will stay home and host a family party.

That is exactly how many people in Abidjan are planning to celebrate Christmas this year. Some people have invited friends over for a Christmas lunch, rather than dinner. Others are hosting all-night parties, where guests are invited to sleep on the sofa or the floor.

Like many other people in Abidjan, Ms. Koffi said she wants the curfew to stay in place for safety reasons, even though it is inconvenient.

Another shopper, Mr. Sika, was out buying presents for his children. He said celebrating Christmas is important, but this year security is even more important.

Abjdjan and the rest of southern Ivory Coast is largely Christian. But Ivorians of all religions say this festive season, they are praying for peace. One of them is Henriette Yao Ahou.

She said, for this Christmas holiday, I pray that God will come and resolve the problems of this country, to take the weapons from the people who are fighting, so peace can return.

Many residents are also nervously remembering Christmas Eve three years ago. That night marked the beginning of Ivory Coast's first military uprising, which put the country on the path of instability that led to the current crisis.