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Thousands of Displaced Ivorians Too Scared to Return Home - 2003-12-16

Hundreds of thousands of displaced people in divided Ivory Coast remain too scared to return to their homes despite, the presence of international peacekeepers. VOA's Nico Colombant reports about a camp in western Ivory Coast, where thousands of displaced people live.

Women wait in line to pump water at a makeshift camp in the town of Guiglo, near the frontline dividing northern-based rebels and Ivorian army soldiers.

One of the women is Irene Taho Nioule. She arrived here last year with her mother, her grandmother, her daughter, and a nephew. "I came from the town of Toulepleu, where fighting was really bad. I was traumatized. If everything ends, if really there are no problems, I can go back if the security is fine, then yes I will go back," she says.

The start of the insurgency by the northern-based rebels in September, 2002 inflamed ethnic tensions in many parts of Ivory Coast, turning former neighbors into enemies.

Mrs. Nioule is from the Guere ethnic group, which has accused immigrants from Burkina Faso of siding with the rebels. The Burkinabes have accused Gueres of burning their homes.

Enemies co-exist at the camp. There are Gueres like Mrs. Nioule, living alongside Burkinabes, like Sawadogou Sayouba. Mr. Sayouba said he came to the camp last year with his father and 11 brothers and sisters. He said they were chased out of the nearby village of Zouan by ethnic Gueres fighting alongside Liberian mercenaries and Ivorian army soldiers.

Many Burkinabes arrived in the Guere-dominated region as farmworkers during the 20th Century.

Complicating matters, many landowners in western Ivory Coast are from different groups, ethnic Baoules and ethnic Betes, who came from the center and south of the country.

A Baoule landowner, Bernard Nzi Gnamien, said he does not know how other villagers will treat him if he returns to his cocoa plantation in the mainly Guere town of Blolequin. "If people tell us we can go back, we would go back to our plantations. But we are waiting to see if the villagers really want us back," he said. "That is why we are waiting because we are not sure about anything."

In Blolequin, Mr. Gnamien inherited 22 hectares of land from his grandfather. He said he fears that since the war started it has been taken over by others. At the transit center in Guiglo, he has started his own masonry business, building showers and latrines.

Despite the presence of people from different groups at the camp, life is tranquil. Children from all groups play together.

Hundreds of French and West African peacekeepers deployed in western Ivory Coast this year, establishing a so-called Zone of Confidence, where only they are allowed to carry weapons. Troops are also present around the camp, which is just south of the line dividing the government and rebel sectors.

But most of the camp residents come from towns outsice the Zone of Confidence, some in the rebel-held north and some in the government-held south.

An operations officer with the International Organization for Migration, Jacques Seurt, said there were renewed reports of ethnic violence in the region in August. He said now it is clear no one wants to go home, adding that more people are actually arriving at the camp.

Since the war began, aid workers estimate more than one million people have been forced to flee their homes.

The war was declared officially over in July, but authorities say Ivory Coast remains in a state they describe as a cold war. A peace deal signed in January has not been implemented, because of a political stalemate.

President Laurent Gbagbo, a southern ethnic Bete, has called on the rebels to disarm, but their political leaders, many of them northerners, say they first want assurances that the peace deal, which includes changing the definition of who is an Ivorian citizen, will be implemented.