The government of national reconciliation in Ivory Coast and United Nations officials are slowly helping northern populations cope with life under rebel control. But officials say they lack a firm peace agreement to make a difference. Two years into the insurgency, there has been a severe deterioration of services and human rights.
Traditional musicians greeted Prime Minister Seydou Diarra in Korhogo in August, in his first trip to one of the main rebel cities since the government of national reconciliation was established.
In a speech long on promises but short on specifics, Mr. Diarra said he would make it a priority to bring health workers back.
Aid agencies estimate that since the start of the insurgency, 80 percent of doctors, nurses and midwives have fled the north. They say HIV-AIDS, typhoid and malaria are on the increase because of improper care.
Tourism Minister Marcel Amon-Tanoh, who accompanied the prime minister, says the visit was symbolic. He believes progress will be achieved only with lasting peace.
"It's the first time that he is visiting this region, this area since the government of national reconciliation has been established. A lot of people are waiting because they have been suffering a lot since September 2002," he said. "The health situation is very bad in this area and only the peace could improve the situation."
Until rebels agree to disarm, it seems doubtful government services will resume. Efforts to reopen schools in the north have failed because too few teachers are willing to go back.
One Ivorian student who now lives in the United States and returned to the north for the first time since the rebellion started, Moussa Dao, pities those who have no choice but to remain.
"Anything related to the government is deteriorating. There is no road," he said. "Government buildings, they're getting bad. But we can understand, there is economic difficulty, the taxes are not getting in. And there is a lack of teachers and this is something I saw. You can see there is a lot of young people, there is no hope right now, there is nothing to do."
Traditional music also greeted a United Nations delegation that recently toured the north.
The head coordinator of the United Nations Development Program, Abdoulaye Mar Dieye, was also lacking in specifics.
He said his mission was trying to evaluate needs and come up with an urgent action plan and funds to help northerners.
A new U.N office was opened in Korhogo, where residents complain of deteriorating human rights conditions. Witnesses say dozens of people recently detained were suffocated to death after being locked up in a container.
Women also say that if they speak badly of rebels, they are beaten. Many farmers, for their part, say they were forced to relinquish control of their land and must now work for rebel commanders.
At a ceremony in the main rebel stronghold of Bouake last week, former child soldiers said they should have a right to live normally despite the war.
The deputy of the United Nations peacekeeping mission, Alan Doss, who opened a new center for about 200 children most affected by the war, says that international agencies are slowly coming together to reverse the deterioration of living conditions.
"This is a small effort. We've done it with UNICEF and the World Food Program. But I think it sends an important message. You know a country doesn't have a future if it doesn't take care of its children," he said.
Northern populations have been favorable to the rebel cause, which seeks equal rights for many northerners treated as foreigners. But Mr. Doss says they now also want to see the peace process move quickly.
"People want peace," he said. "They want to get back to their lives. They want to see the country rebuilt. They want to see the country go forward. I mean some figures have just been published which seem to indicate that Cote d'Ivoire last year had negative economic growth and it's at the bottom of the list of countries. Well, that has an impact on the lives of people, everyday life, and I think that's what they're interested in. They want to go forward."
U.N officials are part of a monitoring committee for the latest peace agreement reached in Ghana last month. It calls for a series of political changes to be passed in parliament before United Nations peacekeepers start disarming rebels and pro-government militias.
So far, lawmakers from the party of President Laurent Gbagbo have stalled on key changes, repeating earlier claims that they amount to what they call a "constitutional coup."
Mr. Gbagbo has said it's too early for him to comment, while rebels have called for his resignation if he doesn't follow through. This effectively leaves the peace process as much in limbo as it has been for 18 months, despite the mounting hardships.