Ivorian ex-fighters exiled in Liberia fear reprisals at home

(By Afp)

Four years after Alassane Ouattara took power in Ivory Coast amid post-election violence that left thousands dead, exiles who fought him tooth and nail yearn to return but fear bloody reprisals.

Hundreds of fighters once loyal to ousted ex-president Laurent Gbagbo have been refugees in Liberia since fleeing Abidjan and the far west, where long-simmering ethnic tensions exploded into massacres in 2011.

"I have not seen my children (since 2011). Each time I make an attempt to go back friends who are close to the current regime will advise me not to," said former militia leader Maho Pohoulou Syprien.

Children refugees from the Ivory Coast arrive at a transit camp after crossing the border into Liberia near Zualay, Nimba county on April 5, 2011 ©Benoit Matsha-Carpentier (IFRC/AFP/File)

After Gbagbo postponed presidential elections for years, Ivorians went to the polls on November 28, 2010 to vote in a run-off between the incumbent and former prime minister Ouattara.

The challenger won but Gbagbo refused to step down and six months of violence followed in which at least 3,000 civilians were killed and more than 150 women raped, according to rights campaigners and the United Nations.

Gbagbo's troops hacked and burned to death opponents, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), while pro-Ouattara forces massacred, dismembered, immolated and raped their way across the far west.

In one horrific incident, hundreds of ethnic Guere civilians perceived as supporting Gbagbo were butchered in Duekoue town by pro-Ouattara groups, various rights organisations reported.

They also documented the killing of northern Ivorians and foreigners in the nearby town of Guiglo on March 29, 2011, when it was controlled by pro-Gbagbo forces.

Witnesses said the perpetrators tied the victims together, then slit their throats.

Gbagbo's loyalists fled Guiglo on March 30, hours before Ouattara's Republican Forces moved in, and joined an exodus of Ivorian refugees that would swell to more than 200,000 in eastern Liberia.

– 'Everything was destroyed' –

Syprien, a commander of the "Young Patriots" militia in Guiglo, is among hundreds of Gbagbo loyalists in Liberia's UN-run PTP Refugee Camp in Grand Gedeh county.

His children remain in Guiglo and while he is happy that they are safe, he is aware that they are growing up without him.

"All the property I had — my house, cars, everything — has been destroyed. I am left with nothing. My last son was born in 2011 and two months later I left the country. I don't even know what he looks like," he said.

Around 50 kilometres (30 miles) from the provincial capital Zwedru, the PTP Camp was the sixth refugee centre opened by Liberia, intended for 27,000 Ivorians but now housing around 15,000.

Among Syprien's neighbours is Bahibo Stephane, 41, a fellow Guiglo veteran who says he misses "everything I left behind: friends, parents, my career, the warm relationships in the army".

"This is the beginning of another of the hundreds of boring days I have spent in this refugee camp. It is getting unbearable," he told AFP.

Like many veterans of the post-election violence, Syprien and Stephane are vague about the action they saw but neither has been implicated in war crimes or other abuses.

Ivory Coast remains far from stable, but the refugees had begun returning before Liberia was shut down last summer by an Ebola epidemic that left around 4,500 people dead.

It has since reopened its borders with the crisis easing, and an opportunity for the remaining 38,000 exiled Ivorians to go home has presented itself once more.

– 'Nothing against Ouattara' –

Liberia, Ivory Coast and the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, recently agreed to resume the voluntary programme which they hope will see 15,000 people return by the end of the year.

But while ordinary citizens are glad to return, the pro-Gbago troops of the PTP Camp fear they will be blamed for the post-election bloodshed.

Their concerns have been amplified by illegal detentions of Gbagbo loyalists and extra-judicial killings in the west after the conflict ended by Ouattara's Republican Forces, according to Amnesty International.

Stephane says he was illegally jailed in Abidjan's notorious Detention and Correction Centre in 2012 after answering a call from the new regime to return and register in Ouattara's new army.

He says he managed to escape after a month by jumping over a prison fence, breaking his arm in the process, and making his way back into Liberia.

"This has made others who wanted to go back change their decision. Ordinary people are going but we, the soldiers, are finding it difficult," he said.

Gbagbo was arrested in April 2011 after French troops and United Nations peacekeepers backed by pro-Ouattara forces stormed his bunker in Abidjan.

He is due to stand trial in July at the International Criminal Court in The Hague for crimes against humanity.

Stephane told AFP that he wanted to rejoin the army, regardless of who the president was, but felt trapped in Liberia.

"I was trained by the government, not an individual. Taxpayers' money was used to train me so I am not for a particular president, I am for the state," he told AFP.

"I have nothing against President Ouattara. I admire the work he is doing in Ivory Coast and I am proud of him."


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