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    When will it ever end?

    By: Alex Neve 

    2 October 2012

    We’ve wrapped up our week’s work in western Côte d’Ivoire; and I leave with many deep impressions.

    First, just as when I was here last, in June 2011, I am so inspired by and have so much respect for the countless women and men who are working to improve human rights protection on the ground here.  Some do so very much as human rights activists, volunteering with existing human rights associations or taking steps to set up their own local organizations.   Others don’t think of themselves as human rights activists but are definitely standing up for human rights through their work as priests, aid workers, journalists, and even police officers.  And many others are simply doing what is necessary to help their families and communities heal from past abuses, cope with ongoing violations and try to stay out of the way of future harm.

    It is always difficult and, in some instances, very dangerous.   To document human rights violations, identify wrongdoers or even just to get people thinking and talking about human rights is perilous in this part of the country.  That was something on our minds at every turn, wanting to be sure that our own contact with local human rights defenders doesn’t end up putting them at greater risk.

    One woman, in particular, who I had met when I was here in June 2011 as well, left me in awe of both her courage and her capacity.  It seemed there was not a village or a neighbourhood where Clémentine has not been active, seeking out people who endure the hardships of this region’s ongoing human rights crisis and offering what help she can.  Often that is just to listen. Sometimes it is to help them get medical care or lodge a complaint with the police.

    Clémentine proudly and passionately talks with women about their rights; children about their rights; and the displaced about their rights.  All of it, she told me, comes from the simple feeling that she cannot turn away if people are suffering.  And as if that is not enough, she is energetically looking for initiatives that can help people claim their rights.  Her latest project is an ambitious rice-growing collective for women who have suffered rape and other abuses.  Clémentine told me it is breaking their backs, but lifting their spirits.

    I also leave, though, with such a clear sense of the deeply entrenched impunity that has trapped communities here in decades of enmity and conflict at best; and crimes against humanity at worst.  One man’s story tells that story so well.  Sixty years old, he fled with his wife, children and grandchildren, when their village was attacked in March 2011 in the midst of the frenzied electoral violence that had spiraled out of control after the 2010 presidential vote.  They escaped to the nearest town, Duékoué, assuming it would be the safest place to be.

    They stayed with family in Duékoué Carrefour neighbourhood.  But they had to flee again when hundreds of people were killed in massacres in that neighbourhood in late March 2011.  Along with more than 20,000 others they crammed themselves into the dramatically overcrowded grounds of a local Catholic Mission, more or less the size of a sprawling school yard.  They were still there when I visited that Mission a few months later, in June, though our paths did not cross that time.  In November they decided they would try to go home, and headed back to their village.  That only lasted a few months, however, as their village came under attack again in February 2012 and their own compound and everything in it was looted and then destroyed by fire.

    This time they headed to the newly established camp for displaced people just outside Duékoué.  The Nahibly Camp was home to around 4,500 people; bigger than most villages in the area.  And they were there on July 20th when a mob set upon the camp, killing and beating many residents and once again setting everything on fire.  So it was back to the village.  But back to the village in fear.  Too fearful to try to regain fields and plantations that are now occupied by others.  Too fearful to go much further than about 1 kilometre into the brush outside the village.

    Forced to flee four times in about eighteen months.  And after recounting his family’s story, all he had left to ponder was, “when will it ever end?”  He asked the question with a sense of resignation and exhaustion that it would never end, that violence would lead to more violence and displacement would be followed by more displacement.

    So the road ahead, working with Clémentine and the countless other Ivoirians determined to bring this human rights crisis to an end is to reach a point where that resigned question of ‘when it will ever end’ has an answer: it will end now.  Key is putting an end to impunity and ensuring that the individuals who order, plan or carry out terrible attacks like the one against the Nahibly Camp face justice.

    And it cannot be one-sided justice.  Many of the officials who may be responsible for terrible human rights violations during the years that Laurent Gbagbo was president have been arrested (though serious concerns mount about the failure to ensure they face fair and prompt trials).  Gbagbo himself, of course, is facing a trial before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. 

    But there has been no effort to ensure that individuals associated with the current President, Alassane Ouattara, are held accountable for abuses before assuming power and violations since.  There has been no justice for last year’s Carrefour massacres; no justice for this year’s killings at Nahibly.  And at this point in time, no sign of justice to come.

    But it must come.  Because that is when it will end.  When justice begins.

    Photo: Sandals abandoned during mass exodus from the Nahibly displaced persons camp, when it was attacked on July 20, 2012. There have be no arrests and 

    We just want to know, is he alive or not?

    By: Alex Neve 

    28 September 2012 

    We just want to know, is he alive or not?

    Over the past few days we have heard so very many heartbreaking accounts in towns and villages in western Côte d’Ivoire from women, men, and young people who have found themselves once again plunged into a human rights crisis.  Or perhaps it's better to think of it as a crisis that has not yet come to an end.

    Most brutal was the frenzied violent attack against the Nahibly camp for displaced persons outside the town of Duékoué (500 km west of Abidjan) just over two months ago on July 20th. Some 4,500 people were living at Nahibly at the time, all of whom have been through the bloody and deadly weeks of massive human rights violations at the time of the electoral crisis in early 2011.

    They had lost love ones, seen them killed in front of them. They had been raped and beaten. They had lost everything they owned when their homes were destroyed and their fields taken over.

    There were three Amnesty International missions to this area during the first half of 2011 and we issued numerous reports highlighting the scale and severity of the violations and abuses.

    When I was here in June last year, close to one million Ivorians, most from this region, were still too fearful to return to their own homes, were refugees in Liberia, or displaced within their own country.

    And now, in a place that was supposed to offer safety, once again it is death and destruction, and once again we have heard stories of people watching as family members and friends were stuck down in front of them by a machete or bullet. We have heard stories of chaos, fear and desperate efforts to reach safety as homes and belongings were set on fire.

    The violations did not end with the horrendous attack.  As people streamed out of the camp running for safety, many young men were forced to the side.  They were loaded into army trucks and taken away and it has been very difficult to get a clear idea of how many men were taken and what has happened to them since.

    We have received numerous reports that many different groups were involved in the abuses including the Dozos and armed elements of the local population. Many questions also arise about the role of the military.

    We interviewed a couple in their sixties who have been unable to get any news about their 28 year old son. They were at Nahibly on July 20th along with their son’s two young daughters and other members of their family.

    In the chaos they ran, and like everyone they became separated.  As she made it through the front entrance of the camp, the mother saw her son being forced into one of the trucks. She screamed after him but the truck drove away.  She ran after the truck and followed it to a military post. She tried to get someone there to talk to her, to answer questions and tell her about her son, but she was chased away and two months later the authorities still refuse to give her or her husband any answers.

    There are reports from another woman that she saw their son and four other prisoners taken out of the back of that military post later that same night. There are rumours that all of them were then killed and buried together in a common grave.

    But as this anxious mother and father said to us, they don’t want rumours, they want the truth.  As they put it “We just want to know, is he alive or not?”

    They brought out their son’s identify card to show to us and his two young daughters gathered around to look at it as well. Soon this disappeared man’s elderly parents and young daughters all had tears streaming down their faces.

    His father said to me as we were leaving “We want to find him alive but at the very least we want his body. We want this to come to an end. We don’t know where to turn. Who do you complain to when you think they are the very ones who took your child?”

    “Please help us. We want truth and justice.”

    Photo: Survivors of attack at Nahibily Displaced Persons Camp

    Human rights challenges remain

    By: Alex Neve

    24 September 2012 

    We heard about the Amnesty report and knew that at the very least now we could not be executed.

    Only a few hours on the ground in Abidjan and already the range and number of human rights concerns being brought to our attention is mounting.  We have begun to gather numerous accounts of possible arbitrary arrest, illegal detention, torture and ill-treatment; and allegations of summary killings as well.  It is certainly clear that the long-entrenched tradition of impunity here must end and that there be a real commitment to impartial justice and true accountability.

    We were last here just over a year ago.  At that time the country was emerging from many months of fighting and massive human rights violations associated with the stand-off and violence that came in the aftermath of the 2010 presidential election.  And while the worst of the abuses had begun to subside, it was clear that Côte d’Ivoire still faced immense human rights challenges.  The Gbagbo government, and its abysmal human rights record, had given way to the Ouattara government.  With the change there was unquestionably much that needed desperately to be improved upon; but also a vital need for Ouattara himself to ensure that his administration would be accountable for their own violations and take steps to reign in security forces and militias still committing abuses.

    We are here to get a sense of what progress there has been, what setbacks have occurred, and what action is needed to provide full protection to all Ivoirians, regardless of their ethnic background or political views.

    We spent many days in the west, near the border with Liberia last June, hearing testimonies from among the hundreds of thousands of people who were still displaced at the time and were terrified at the prospect of returning home.  We know that tensions and unrest continue and that there are growing reports of attacks and other abuses amidst a climate of fear and insecurity.

    Yesterday in Abidjan we met with one activist who was among the many Gbagbo supporters rounded up after the former president was captured in April 2011.  He, like countless others, was held for months without charge or trial. He was held in a remote part of the country, in harsh conditions and very little contact with the outside world.  He was eventually charged, with a litany of offences that are so numerous and excessive that the politics of it all couldn’t be more clear.  And then after eight months; he was conditionally released.

    When we were here in June 2011 we sought access to the many locations across the country where political prisoners were being held.  The only group we were allowed to visit were the more than 30 prisoners held in Abidjan’s Pergola Hotel, which had been converted into a detention centre following Gbagbo’s capture.  It became clear to us that the group was being held in contravention of numerous international legal standards and that many were almost certainly prisoners of conscience.  We had lobbied hard about their cases, continuing right up to the day of our departure from the country.  Within days we had issued a short report outlining our concerns and demanding action. Many of the prisoners were released even before we had officially released the report.

    The man we interviewed yesterday was not among the Pergola detainees, he was being held far from Abidjan and certainly not in the comfort of a three star hotel with a marble foyer and private rooms.  But he told us that he and the other prisoners soon heard of our report.  And while it did not lead to any immediate change in their situation he told us it was an immense source of hope.  At long last they knew that the outside world was aware and was concerned about the illegal detentions.  He told us that once he knew that Amnesty International was following what was happening they felt confident that “at least now we could not be executed.”

    It was a good reminder of the importance of our work.  Over the next two weeks we will gather many more testimonies.  We will do what we can to bring attention to forgotten and overlooked prisoners.  We will press for action to give all Ivoirians the confidence that their rights matter equally and are being protected equally.

    Return to Côte d’Ivoire

    By: Alex Neve

    21 September 2012 

    It is certainly not what I hoped for.  I didn’t want to find myself heading back to Côte d’Ivoire on an Amnesty International research mission so soon. Why? Because doing so means that human rights violations are once again of mounting concern. It means that there is increased suffering and confusion. It means that, once again, it is time for the world to know more about a potential crisis, unfolding right now.

    I was here in 2003 and more recently in June 2011. During those missions, our Amnesty International teams met with many people and gathered stories, facts, pictures and information which we put in front of Ivoirian authorities, UN officials, world governments and the public. We pressed for action to ensure protection, justice and reform.

    As we head back to shine a light on what we hope will not once again become a human rights crisis, I am reminded both of the wrenching stories of fear and loss that I heard in 2011, but also of the stories of incredible resilience and determination.   I invite you to read my blogs here as I share our findings from this mission to Cote d’Ivoire.