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War Is Not Over When It's Over
Women Speak Out from the Ruins of War
By Ann Jones
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2010 Ann Jones
All rights reserved.
CÔTE D'IVOIRE:"GRÂCE À L'APPAREILBLD"
This is how it started. The IRC sent me first to West Africa, to Côte d'Ivoire, a country I'd visited a dozen years before on an overland journey that took me from one end of Africa to the other. What I remembered most about Côte d'Ivoire was the kindness of a man named Aka who ran a little campground on the outskirts of Abidjan where I parked my Land Rover and pitched my tent for many days. Sometimes we'd go out for yam chips and beer at one of the cheap open-air restaurants, and sitting up late under the stars, Aka would tell me about his family and his little coffee and cocoa farm up-country. He had lived there happily until something he didn't quite understand happened to the economy — something called "adjustment." After that, he couldn't make ends meet. He had to leave his small plantings in the care of his wife and children and come to the big city to enter the cash economy. He started Abidjan's first campground, a tiny well-swept space under palms rattled by winds off the wild unswimmable sea, and tried to make strangers like me feel at home. Yet he was a stranger himself in Abidjan, his family far away, separated by forces they could not comprehend. In Aka's late-night voice you could hear even then the sighs of a country coming apart. His story was one small sign of the decline that would bottom out in civil war.
From Aka's campground on the Gulf of Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire stretches north to Mali and Burkina Faso, sandwiched between Liberia and Guinea to the west and Ghana to the east. It is one of the largest countries in West Africa, just about the size of Germany, and for a long time it was part of the colonies known collectively as France Outre Mer, "France Beyond the Sea," or French Overseas Territories. Under French domination the nation of farmers began to cultivate crops for which the French had a taste, such as Aka's coffee and cocoa. The country had other treasures too: tropical timber, gold, and the tusks of the vanishing elephants that gave the country its name: Ivory Coast.
In 1960 Côte d'Ivoire gained its independence from France and quickly became Africa's rising star — one of the most prosperous countries on the continent. The father of the country, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, a doctor who led Côte d'Ivoire to independence and served as president until his death in 1993, had spent twelve years in France as the colony's representative to the French parliament and later as a member of the French cabinet. As president of Côte d'Ivoire, he welcomed French entrepreneurs who helped make modern Abidjan "the Paris of Africa." President Houphouët-Boigny, who had also been a successful planter and farm union organizer, concentrated on agricultural development to spread prosperity throughout the nation of small farmers. Then came worldwide recession in the early 1980s, accompanied in Côte d'Ivoire by drought. As the economy slumped, the World Bank offered loans and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) imposed ruthless "structural adjustment." Farm prices were cut in half, teachers and civil servants laid off, natural resources snatched away — almost half the virgin rain forest in a single decade thanks to an $80 million World Bank "environmental" loan, which in turn required more "adjustment" and more loans to pay the interest. By the time "the Old Man" Houphouët-Boigny died in 1993, Côte d'Ivoire was in debt for about $1.5 billion. The French had pocketed their money and gone home, the middle class was slipping into poverty, and Aka was taking leave of his family.
The story since then is all about political power plays — dodgy elections, coups and countercoups, successful and not, and ambitious politicians trying to succeed to the Old Man's power by stirring ethnic conflicts where none existed before. During decades of prosperity, Côte d'Ivoire was a magnet for migrant workers from poor neighboring countries; they brought their families and settled in. There was plenty of work and land to go around. But hard times and the politics of fear changed all that. Human Rights Watch reports that after Houphouët-Boigny's death, politicians scrambling for power "exploited ethnic divisions to oust political rivals in elections, using the state apparatus to repress opponents and incite hatred or fear among populations that had lived in relative harmony for decades." The ultranationalist definition of pure "Ivoirité" became the wheel upon which immigrants and minorities were broken. The breach widened between the Christian south, the seat of government, and the neglected, impoverished Muslim north.
In September 2002, northern rebels tried, and failed, to overthrow President Laurent Gbagbo, and the country fell into civil war. French, African, and later United Nations troops stepped in, and a peace treaty of sorts was signed in 2003. More than eleven thousand international peacekeepers monitored a buffer zone — la Zone de Confiance — running the width of the country east to west, separating the opposing forces. International intervention cut the war short, but the country had already been torn apart by animosity and violence such as peaceable, tolerant Côte d'Ivoirians had never known. When I returned to Côte d'Ivoire in 2007, the country was still trying to put itself back together — in the midst of continuing tension and rising poverty and a series of peace treaties, issued annually. It existed, as so many countries do these days, as a "post-conflict" zone. It was neither at war nor at peace.
I checked in with the IRC's main office in Abidjan and then headed up-country to Yamoussoukro, where I was to work. Although Abidjan is the country's largest, most fashionable city, Yamoussoukro is the administrative capital, a city purposely built for pomp and circumstance. Here in 1905, when the place was a tiny Baoule village, Felix Houphouët-Boigny was born. When the country prospered after independence, the president transformed his hometown into a modern city with a fancy hotel and a presidential palace set among gardens holding pools filled with crocodiles. Near the end of his life, as a gift to the people, he built the Basilique de Notre Dame de la Paix — an astonishing replica of Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome — with seating for seven thousand worshippers and standing room for forty-two thousand more. I was assigned living quarters on a nearby street, in a rented house with other IRC workers, and I used to walk out in the evening just before sunset to see the first stars appear above the darkening dome. It was the hour when brilliant streetlights came on — an oddity in Africa — and herdsmen appeared on the broad ceremonial boulevard, gently urging their bony cattle past the basilica to drink at a crocodile-free lagoon. I was there on September 19, 2007, the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the civil war. Some feared there might be trouble, but in Yamoussoukro it was a day like any other: hot, humid, overcast from time to time with clouds that gathered at dusk and rain that drenched citizens coming late from the markets. President Gbagbo was in New York, preparing to announce to the General Assembly of the United Nations on September 25, 2007, that the war in Côte d'Ivoire was well and truly over.
But when is war over? Long after treaties are signed, soldiers live with injuries, flashbacks, anguish, and remorse about things they saw and did during the war. Women live with the consequences of what was done to them.
Three years after the short war officially ended, Amnesty International reported:
The scale of rape and sexual violence in Côte d'Ivoire in the course of the armed conflict has been largely underestimated. Many women have been gang-raped or have been abducted and reduced to sexual slavery by fighters. Rape has often been accompanied by the beating or torture (including torture of a sexual nature) of the victim.... All armed factions have perpetrated and continue to perpetrate sexual violence with impunity.
Human Rights Watch observed that "cases of sexual abuse are significantly underreported" because women fear "the possibility of reprisals of perpetrators, the negligence or retaliation of authorities, the ostracism of families and communities, and the unknown consequences that attend the violation of cultural taboos."
Amnesty International documented case after case of girls and women, aged "under twelve" to sixty-three assaulted by armed men. The more recent report of Human Rights Watch records the rape of children as young as three. It details how women and girls were seized in their village homes or at military roadblocks or discovered hiding in the bush. Many were too young or too old to run fast enough to escape. Some were raped in public. Some were raped in front of their husbands and their children. Some were forced to witness the murder of their husband or parents. Then they were taken away to soldiers' camps where they were held, along with many other women. They were forced to cook for the soldiers and repeatedly gang-raped. They were beaten and tortured. They saw women who resisted beaten and murdered.
Such violent rapes result in lasting injuries and pain. Amnesty International reports: "The brutality of rape frequently causes serious physical injuries that require long-term and complex treatment including uterine prolapses (the descent of the uterus into the vagina or beyond) ... and other injuries to the reproductive system or rectum, often accompanied by internal and external bleeding or discharge." It notes that women can't "access the medical care they need." Some women — years after the official end of the war — find it hard to sit down or stand up or walk. Some miscarried. Many contracted sexually transmitted diseases and HIV. Nobody knows how many died, or are dying, as a result. And many are still missing, perhaps dragged across borders when rogue militias from Liberia and Sierra Leone were expelled from the country. Perhaps slaughtered along the way.
The Amnesty report traces this wholesale violence against women in Côte d'Ivoire back to December 2000 when a number of assaults targeted women of foreign origin, commonly referred to as Dioula. Amnesty documents the cases of Dioula women arrested, raped, and tortured at the government's Police Training School in Abidjan because their presumed ethnicity and political affiliation allied them with the opposition. Human Rights Watch notes that this well-documented Dioula affair is only one of many similar assaults incited at the time — before the war — by government-sponsored racist propaganda. No man responsible for any of these crimes has ever been "brought to justice." Amnesty International calls that "a disturbing signal to future perpetrators of sexual violence in Côte d'Ivoire." It later comes to be called "impunity" — because things set in motion by men grasping for power cannot be called back even when a war has been fought and ended, and a peace accord reached. Ignite misogyny and it will burn on its own.
The war in Côte d'Ivoire was a short one, over before most of the world noticed it had begun. If we did not have the reports of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, written by researchers who scoured the country after the war, we would have no idea what women had suffered. I certainly wouldn't know, for although I worked closely with village women and spoke with them of many intimate things, none ever alluded to the violence of wartime. It seems remarkable to me now, in retrospect, that they kept silent. Two of the villages where I worked were communities of foreign origin; some of the women had surely survived personal violence during the war, and their silence may well have been a measure of their fear of ostracism and "unknown consequences," as Human Rights Watch suggests. But there was more to it, I think. For village women who had to walk the roads still controlled by soldiers and police, the war was not over. They did their best to avoid the roads; some gave up going to market and packaged their produce in plastic to sell to motorists passing at the village edge, though even then the police harassed them. The women put a brave face on things, but they were plainly afraid of the gunmen. Their villages offered security, but at the price of the routine afflictions of daily life: forced labor, wife beating, marital rape. And now, more closely confined to home in the aftermath of war, these were the things they complained of. Women do almost all the work under penalty of punishment, while men reap the profits. With that imbalance come certain somewhat contradictory beliefs: Whatever goes wrong, a woman is to blame. Whatever is wrong, a woman is powerless to change. So it's no good voicing a grievance, or trying to cast blame on someone else, least of all a man. Better keep silent. What's past is past, and potential violence still lies all around.
In the aftermath of war, where do relief agencies begin? The IRC started working in Côte d'Ivoire in 2003 to help the masses of refugees flooding in from Liberia next door, fleeing from their own civil war. It stayed on to work on the fallout of Côte d'Ivoire's homegrown conflict. At first it focused on the basics: education and health care services. By 2007 it was running programs to deal with clean water and sanitation, primary health care and emergency obstetrical care, child protection and education, reintegration of displaced people and child soldiers, economic recovery, community building, and human rights. It operated out of three field sites in different parts of the country, hoping to encourage national reconciliation by serving three very different populations with different needs. Any well-planned humanitarian project to assist people damaged or displaced by war may be of some service to women. In the United States we usually think of women's rights as civil rights or legal rights, but the United Nations recognizes the full range of social, economic, environmental, political, and personal rights. Access to clean water and sanitation may be counted among the environmental rights of women, just as education and child protection may be considered among their social rights, and obstetrical care among their personal rights. All these rights are violated — violently — by war. And all of them are addressed in one way or another by humanitarian relief programs dealing with wells or schools or prenatal care. But all three IRC field sites also had strong programs in "Violences Basées sur le Genre" — Gender-Based Violence — because it is that added violence, that extraordinary personal violence women suffer in wartime, and after, just because they are women, that commands the full attention of GBV specialists.
In Yamoussoukro, the GBV manager was a big, beautiful Ivoirian woman whose name, written in the customary inverted order, was Tanou Virginie. Westerners intending to use her first name often mistakenly called her Tanou and she grew to like it. "It sounds more African," she said. Now that we were to work together on the photography project, "Tanou" she was to me. One morning we piled into a car with a couple of GBV field agents and set off for the village of Koupela-Tenkodoko. Not far out of town the grand ceremonial boulevard gave way to a skinny, potholed, asphalt and gravel strip, hemmed in by tall grass and punctuated along the way by military checkpoints where armed soldiers blocked the road with sharp-toothed chains. The checkpoints had been set up, as they are routinely in post-conflict countries, to keep the peace and provide security; but for women they prolonged the terrors of war. Only necessary errands to the clinic or the market could bring women out to run the gauntlet of policemen and soldiers. Yet all along the road women walked singly or in small groups with sick children slung on their hips or baskets of vegetables balanced on their heads. They would be harassed; some would be turned back; some would be robbed of their vegetables or their money; some would be beaten; some searched; some raped. We couldn't help them. We were a car full of women, all Africans except for me, and despite the IRC stickers on our vehicle, the soldiers pointed their guns at us and barked questions about our destination and our work just as they would lord it over the women who came on foot with their sick children and no defense.
An hour later, we turned off the highway and bounced the last few miles over a deeply rutted road. We drove past ranks of mud brick bungalows, through a ramshackle market, to the far end of the village where a meeting was in progress in front of the chief's house. A crowd of women lined the terrace and the steps, talking with the IRC health team. We paid our respects to the chief; and when our turn came, Tanou and I introduced ourselves and invited the women to take part in a special GBV photography project. We were about to describe it when a local man who had been translating for the health team started to translate for us as well, recycling our French in the local language. He had barely begun to speak when the women turned away, muttering among themselves. An old woman jumped up, put her hands on her hips, and shouted perhaps the only words she knew in French, "Men lie!" The men from the health team laughed. Even the stony-faced village chief cracked a smile. But the women weren't laughing. They supported the old woman's objection: their meeting, exclusively for women, should not be translated by a man. The man said that he, Malik, was the official translator for the IRC, as all the villagers knew. The women couldn't deny it, but they were skeptical nonetheless. The old woman glared.
Excerpted from War Is Not Over When It's Over by Ann Jones. Copyright © 2010 Ann Jones. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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