Ivoirians who have fled across the border to Liberia have reported incidents of rape, sexual abuse and murder to NGOs and human rights groups working in Grand Geddeh and Nimba counties.
Children in villages in Liberia’s Nimba County have told field workers at NGO Equip that they were forced to watch as their mothers were raped and then killed. In several cases, the children themselves were then sexually assaulted.
A woman told Equip staff she was forced to watch while armed men raped her four-year-old daughter. Most attacks have taken place outside villages as people tried to flee, or at checkpoints, refugees said.
Refugees say sexual assaults have been committed by both armed supporters of Laurent Gbagbo and of Alassane Ouattara, as well as militia members at checkpoints, and to a lesser extent, opportunists who have preyed on refugees’ vulnerability.
Equip is working in 23 clinics in Nimba Country to assist survivors of sexual violence and abuse in getting the medical and psychosocial attention they need.
Sexual violence has become increasingly prevalent in Côte d’Ivoire over the past decade, Human Rights Watch (HRW) senior West Africa researcher, Corinne Dufka told IRIN.
“During times of political upheaval sexual violence has a clear political link, but unfortunately the general sense of lawlessness in Côte d’Ivoire for the past decade has led to a disturbing increase in sexual violence countrywide.”
HRW has documented over 20 cases of politically motivated rape by pro-Gbagbo military forces in which the ethnic and political element was clearly identifiable, as well as reports of what appear to be politically motivated rape by Ouattara supporters, Dufka told IRIN. The organization has also documented extra-judicial killings perpetrated by supporters on both sides, stating that some incidents “risk becoming a crime against humanity should it become widespread or systematic”.
Ouattara spokesperson in Paris Sogona Bamba told IRIN impunity would not be accepted. “Ouattara has stressed he does not want to see impunity on our side, or the other side. We do not support ‘selective indignation’.” She went on to say: “We are caught up in a cycle now and we need to break out of that cycle and punish all those who have committed acts of violence, whether from Gbagbo’s side or Ouattara’s side.”
Ivoirians who fled to Liberia have also reported having witnessed murders.
A man in his early thirties who is currently sheltering in Zwedru in Nimba County fled into the bush after seeing 12 people murdered by people who he says were pro-Ouattara militia near the Liberia border, according to Equip country director David Waines.
Though order has been restored in parts of the country, said Waines - notably in Danané, a town in western Côte d’Ivoire - “there are still degrees of anarchy throughout the country… People are operating with complete impunity… They are getting away with rape, murder and every kind of human rights abuse.”
Refugees are arriving in Liberia traumatized, exhausted, hungry and often sick, say NGO staff. “All along the Liberia border in Nimba County, I met refugee children who couldn’t smile… They were too shocked by the violence they had seen,” said NGO Plan International’s disaster risk specialist Berenger Berehoudougou in a 6 April statement. Most of the refugees he spoke to came from villages near Duékoué where up to 800 people were allegedly massacred.
One woman, Félicité, from Daloa in western Côte d’Ivoire, arrived in Liberia naked, with three children under six. She had been attacked by bandits in Côte d’Ivoire who stole her clothes and all her possessions. Her sister died en route. “It was a horrific journey… They had to run from gunfire; they saw dead bodies along the road; and they were forced to wade through rivers,” said Berehoudougou.
Many children are arriving without their parents, says Save the Children’s emergency manager in eastern Liberia Rae Mcgrath. “The longer they are separated from their parents, the bigger the chance they won’t be found,” he told IRIN. The organization is placing children with temporary foster families while it traces their relatives.
Most refugees are reporting that the violence is ethnically and politically driven, say NGOs and rights groups. The political fault-lines in this region are largely along ethnic and religious grounds. Violence in the west has also been linked to longstanding clashes over land that have pitted local communities against outsiders. Waines, just back from talking to refugees in Nimba Country, said: “There is a large ethnic dynamic to this violence - targeted ethnic killings and attacks are driving the dynamic.”; Many of the refugees he spoke to are too nervous to return to Côte d’Ivoire, for fear of reprisal attacks under a change of guard.
Human Rights Watch has urged Ouattara and commanders in his military - known as Forces Républicaines de Côte d’Ivoire (FRCI) - to publicly order all members to abide by international human rights law, and investigate cases of extra-judicial killings and other abuses, and hold perpetrators accountable.
Ouattara, in a 31 March televized statement, urged FRCI and all military and paramilitary forces who have supported him to refrain from committing atrocities.