Since Ivory Coast is on the news again and embattled Gbagbo hopefully about to go, I thought I'd post this story, which relates how I traversed the already civil war torn country in early 2004.
It's been three days that the blue helmets have arrived in Ivory Coast. I'm approaching the rebel occupied territory in the north and west from the country's capital Yamoussoukro which is situated just on the "frontier" of the gouvernment controlled areas in the south east. Man, a town not far from the Guinean border (my destination), has been occupied for the past one and a half years. One and a half years that the inhabitants have to pay the many barricaded posts to enter or leave their town, that there is no post, that only some telephone lines aren't cut, and that there are regular shoot outs in the picturesque hills that surround the town.
Half (approximatively, I don't know the real numbers) of the rebels are renegades, deserters of the national army. When you arrive at their barricades (rice sacks stacked or piled up tree trunks) they asks everyone to get out of the vehicle to show their passport. They certainly don't joke around and look grimly at whoever is coming from the east, although the white one is waved to pass after one indifferent glimpse at the passport, hassled less than anyone else.
Presently we have passed several roadblocks, all of them renegades? barricades, and every time there has been an official procedure, people got out to line up to show their identification, and were systematically given a scornful glance coming from the south east as they were.
We are now approaching the first UN blockade. Seeing the tanks -big UN inscriptions on them, too- at the side, and the white guys in their uniforms amidst this tropical landscape, aloe veras and a palm tree in the foreground, I feel immediately like zoomed into a scene from some war film. A young UN soldier of about my age is signalling the vehicles to stop, then approach one after the other to talk to the drivers. "Vous venez d'ou? Vous êtes destinés à ? Combien de passagères y a-t-il dans la voiture ? »
He has hesitant, faltering ways, and pale-faced he clings to his MG, his eyes stumbling nervously over his field of vision, he never focuses too long on his interlocutor. "Vous avez entendu qu'il y a eu des coups de feu à Man cette après-midi ? -Vous me faîtes gaffe » He pronounces each phrase with solemnity, maybe with difficulty; "You know there have been shoot-outs again today?".
"Vous allez voire de la famille là-bas? » He asks the white girl, "are you going to see family where you are going?". « Yes" I lie. "Tu me fais gaffe, hein. Tu me fais gaffe. » he reiterates and signals our van to pass with an inclination of the head, "be careful, be careful".
Suddenly, the sweat on his forehead -although it is hot enough to be of ordinary kind- seems to be cold, fear induced. His frightened manners intimidate me more than the actual words he has uttered.
Afterwards I think it must just have been the poor guys first day.
Even in government territory at each stop someone has asked me for my number. Now, half an hour after the last one of those, we get to the next blockade, one of a very different kind, our first one of the second type of rebels, the "volunteers from the general public".
A young man comes running toward our vehicle, one hand clutching an MG, both arms spread out, teeth shining white in a big smile "Bonne Arrivée! Bonne Arrivée" , welcome, welcome. "How are you doing? Having a good one? Tremendous!"
Behind him groups of young people hang out in small circles smoking joints and cigarettes and listening to music on a small boom box. I get more the impression to have chanced upon a teenagers week-end party than on a road blockage of political rebels. When we are asked to get out our identity cards I am offered fags from all sides. No, thanks, I don?t smoke these, but I'll have a draw at that spliff. I am welcomed warmly and asked for my phone number and my adress. Their nicknames are Saddam and Ben Laden, or, les popularly, Hitler. But then, so are many schoolboys' under the age of ten all over West Africa.
When they find out I'm German, everyone wants to have a go to practice a phrase of their school German and I'm talked to about Rudi Voeller and Bayern Munich. One guy asks me how my digestion is going, a phrase that German tourists have taught him on the south coast.
Some rebels have come far, they are Burkinabé or Senegalese -this one next to me boastingly tells me of having experience in rebellions, he has ?done? Sierra Leone before- only to soon after quickly avow he loves me, as is in fashion with Africans, hoping I'll agree to marry and have him shipped to my home address in Europe. When I unexpectedly decline his offer he retires from the scene with a vexed facial expression shouldering his MG ostentatiously to regain countenance.
The day after I get the chance to talk to two young rebels in the bus toward the Guinean border. One proclaims himself a Rasta and it's a white girl that has to explain to him that being a rasta and a rebel should mutually exclude each other, especially since he doesn?t seem to know what exactly he is fighting for neither. The two admit without prevaricating that for them it's mostly about partying, being able to hang out all day, play with guns in the hills, and intimidate people, other than that their activities are devoid of objectives or reasons. Arriva, la revolution!
I have to hire a motorcycle with driver in Danane to get me to the border. I ask at a gas station and quickly they say they can get a driver for me with whom I negotiate the prize. The tank is filled up and off we go. It turns out this will be my favourite frontier. The ride takes us along an awful narrow road through the rain forest, lined with massive trees hung with lianas, through, under tall lithe groupings of bamboo, and past spread out lakes encircling palmtrees that are exuding the intense, fruity, heavy and humid air. Villages pop up, the inhabitants smiling and waving from under their mudhuts' shade spending verandas as we speed past. We cross young men on their way to one of the villages carrying a good seven, eight metres of bamboo on their heads. Big slow hogs are taking their mud baths in the puddles on the dirt road -a road with massive holes in the road that no bush taxi could ever manage and even with the motorcycle at one point we slither and fall. It must be quite the ordeal for the driver. Before we get back on he smiles at me wipes the mud running down his face in sweaty beads.
And the smells! It smells so good I don't even want to breathe out because these smells are just so lush, sweet and thick, potent. Smells of forest and heat, trees and fruit and flowers and rain. Slightly alcoholic, like the forest is distilling its own exotic liquor and invading the air with it. Definetely intoxicating. Repeatedly we drive through a cloud of butterflies that go up like clouds of dust whirling around us. From white static dots on the ground as we are approaching, they turn into a rainbow of colours around us. I follow each flapping triangular softest pink blushing red sky blue emerald and moss coloured pair of wings luminous in the sunlight, and it feels like we have entered one fluttering vortex for the short moment that my head, dizzy, is turning back for one last glimpse of the colours, settling down palely to rest again.