In Ivory Coast, a festival celebrating traditional african masks is being hailed as a tool to help unify a region plagued by violence. Organizers of the three-day celebration that finished Saturday say the festival has proven that cultural ties can help bind a population that has been divided by civil war since 2002. Phillip Wellman reports for VOA from the village of Zahibo in central-western Ivory Coast on how the local population is preserving the past and looking forward to the future.

A local villager dances to the beat of a handmade drum before a crowd of spectators. He wears nettings around his legs, a thick skirt of dried leaves around his waist and the symbol of the festival on his face: the mask.

In many areas of Ivory Coast masks are important emblems of local culture. During ceremonies like the one in Zahibo, mask wearers dance to ask the spirits of village ancestors for blessing, assistance and protection.

But violence and political instability blocked the ceremonies from taking place until this year, when Ivorian lawmaker Nicolas Djetoa, helped organize the festival of masks titled Zombo 2007.

Unlike in the past where each village held their own event, Zombo 2007 brought mask wearers and spectators from 10 neighboring villages to Zahibo to jointly participate in the festivities.

Djetoa says the festival was aimed at reviving the mask tradition, which has been fading in recent years. He says festival organizers are fighting to maintain their culture no matter what the current political situation might be. He says they are doing this because culture helps a country to live and it brings national unity.

Ivory Coast has been split between a rebel-held north and a government-controlled south since civil war broke out in 2002. An area known as the "confidence zone" existed at the boarder of the two sides until September. Despite its name, the area, which was heavily patrolled by the U.N., has seen some of the most violent activities in the county.

The village of Zahibo lies within the former confidence zone. But Djetoa says Ivorians from the north and the south attended the festival and everything was peaceful.

Djetoa says it is a real joy for him to see rebels from the north and southerners enjoy in the festivities. He says the festival is not about politics and was actually organized by people who supported several different political parties.

Organizer Mathias Doudou says the festival of masks makes people who used to fight with each other realize what they have in common.

This area has many different ethnic groups, but we have the same culture he says. Through this festival and through our culture we can unify the many social classes.

Doudou says that after seeing the success of this year's festival, organizers would like to invite every area that has a mask tradition to participate next year.

Organizers say they will be asking the government for financial assistance next year.

They say they will use the funds to help pay for transportation costs so that as many people can participate in the festival as possible.

They say this is the best way to ensure one of Ivory Coast's most unique traditions carries on into the future.