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Election Violence in Abidjan: October 24-26, 2000
(New York, December 20, 2000)
On October 22, 2000, presidential elections were held in the Ivory Coast. In a bid to eliminate political rivals from the presidential race, military dictator General Robert Guei fomented ethnic and religious mistrust, and questioned opposition leader Alassane Ouattara's nationality, barring him from running in elections. Ouattara, who heads the Rally of Republicans party (RDR), draws heavily on support from the largely Muslim north.
The next day, Ouattara's supporters from the RDR took to the streets again, setting up barricades and burning tires, and demanded fresh elections on the grounds that Ouattara and other candidates had been barred from running. While the military stayed in their barracks, the paramilitary gendarmerie and police aggressively prevented RDR protestors from demonstrating. In many cases, paramilitary gendarmes and police actively sided with FPI mobs, and in a few cases, even conducted joint patrols and operations with FPI supporters. The bloody clashes which ensued were characterized by religious and ethnic tensions between mostly Muslim northerners who largely support the RDR and security forces and civilians supporting Gbagbo, a Christian from the South.
In the days following the October 22, 2000 presidential elections, political, ethnic, and religious violence resulted in the deaths of more than 150 people and injuries to hundreds more. In Abidjan alone, state security forces gunned down political protesters in the streets and rounded up civilians, later executing them in ditches, fields, and within a Gendarmerie base. The bodies of fifty-seven young men were found in a mass grave, at least eighteen more were found floating in a lagoon, and seven more were found slaughtered near a bus roundabout. Hundreds of political activists and foreigners - and Ivorians whose nationality was questioned - were detained and tortured by security forces and scores of these unacknowledged detainees later "disappeared." Supporters from two major political parties, the FPI and the RDR attacked each other and in a several cases burned, shot or hacked to death those thought to be from opposite parties. Several mosques and churches were also attacked.
On October 24 and 25, tens of thousands of demonstrators, primarily from Laurent Gbagbo's Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) and Alassane Ouattara's Rally of Republicans (RDR), took to the streets to protest President General Robert Guei's annulment of the election. As they descended upon the city center, the elite Presidential Guard and other military forces loyal to General Guei opened fire directly into the crowds with little or no warning. The FPI estimated that some sixty protesters were killed.
On October 24 the Red Brigade, a special unit within the Presidential Guard, fired on protesters on their way into Abidjan's central Plateau District as they attempted to cross over a bridge, and after they had jumped into the lagoon to escape the gunfire. Many drowned and others were shot as they attempted to cross to safety in boats. As tension mounted over opposition to General Guei, several hundred protesters, mostly from the FPI, were rounded up and detained within the Presidential Palace. Many were beaten and several were tortured there, including a pregnant woman. Numerous civilians were killed and injured when jeeps used by the Red Brigade drove directly into crowds. At least two FPI supporters were killed after two grenades or small mortars were fired into a crowd of protesters.
On October 26, after General Guei fled the country, the state-sponsored violence of the previous two days intensified and developed a clear ethnic and religious focus. The primary perpetrators were paramilitary gendarmes and police, and the violence was principally aimed at supporters of Alassane Ouattara's RDR party. Ouattara supporters, mostly from the Muslim north, flooded into the streets to demand an annulment of the election in which General Guei had barred Ouattara from running. As RDR supporters attempted to converge on the National Television Station, they were gunned down in the street, rounded up by gendarmes and police, and openly attacked by mobs of supporters of Gbagbo's FPI armed with machetes, knifes, rocks and iron bars.
Much of the killing by the gendarmes took place after one of their lieutenants was killed while patrolling through the "Derrier Rai" neighborhood of Abobo, a suburb of Abidjan. After the news of his death spread, gendarmes went on a killing spree in Abobo, hunting down Muslims, foreigners, and young men from the northern Diola tribe. The gendarmes shot thirty to forty young men previously detained within Abobo's Camp Commando, and then rounded up eleven to thirteen other Diola men for use as porters to load the dead and dying onto a truck. After dumping the bodies in a forest on the outskirts of Abidjan, the porters and other witnesses still alive were also killed according to survivors. There were at least two other massacres in the "Derrier Rai," of five (while seven were gunned down, two survived) and thirteen men respectively. The victims, who were dragged from their homes or detained while walking home from work or visiting friends, were beaten and in some cases stripped before being shot. The gunmen later took away the bodies of the thirteen men.
According to victims, the gendarmes and police, many in civilian dress, captured, detained, and in some cases tortured hundreds of RDR protesters. The detainees were predominantly Ivorians from the northern Diola tribe and other Muslim Ivorians seized indiscriminately with foreigners from Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and other countries. None of those interviewed reported having been formally arrested or interrogated. Many of those detained said they were not politically active, and all were detained exclusively and expressly on the basis of tribe, religion, or their real or imputed foreign origins or nationality.
After being detained or seized in roundups, they were transferred to one of several camps, including facilities at the Police Academy of Cocody, the Agban Gendarmerie Camp, Abobo's Camp Commando, the Gendarmerie of Koumassi, or the Gendarmerie of Yopougon. Former detainees described how scores of foreigners were held and separated by nationality at the Police Academy in Cocody.
Police and gendarmes beat the detainees at the academy with ropes, belts, iron bars, sticks, and branches; burned them with cigarettes or pieces of burning plastic or clothing; doused them with cold water and forced to swim in dirty open sewers; forced them to walk back and forth on their knees; made them lie down and look into the sun; tear-gassed them in close quarters and sprayed their eyes, mouth, and genitals with mace; and forced them to fight with each other. The beatings resulted in broken ribs and fingers, concussions and open and often deep head and body wounds. In two detention centers, older Muslim men were forced to pull out their facial hair. Many of those in detention were repeatedly threatened with death and a few were subjected to mock executions.
Although Human Rights Watch could not confirm any cases of rape, there were serious cases of sexual violence against both men and women, most often perpetrated by members of the paramilitary gendarmes. Women were detained in significantly fewer numbers than men, but most of those in detention were beaten and in some cases sexually humiliated and abused. There were some ten women held in Agban Gendarmerie Camp, at least five in the Police Academy of Cocody, and at least ten, mostly FPI supporters, detained by the army within the Presidential Palace. In Agban Gendarmerie Camp several women were stripped naked, beaten, ordered to spread their legs, and threatened with sexual abuse with branches of an acacia tree. At least five male prisoners said they were ordered to get an erection in order to rape woman detainees. When unable to do so, they were struck repeatedly with a belt buckle on their genitals. Former detainees said that in the Yopougon Gendarmerie at least one man was led around by a string tied to his penis. Women detained in Agban and the Presidential Palace were forcefully pulled around the room by their breasts in full view of other detainees. Nurses and doctors treating the RDR wounded confirmed treating several men whose genitals had been injured while in detention.
Human Rights Watch documented at least twenty cases of Ivorians and foreigners detained by gendarmes and police have at this writing yet to be found. In Abobo, nine young Diola men, many from the same extended family, were captured by police and taken away in a public transport vehicle. In Treichville, a wounded man was discharged from a hospital and never returned home, and in Derrier Rai a young man was dragged from his home and has not been seen again. Morgue attendants and hospital workers described family members searching for their loved ones throughout the month of November.
Human Rights Watch cannot pinpoint where command responsibility lies in the police and gendarme hierarchy. Victims described clearly the presence of officers who appeared to be in command of operations in which serious abuses were committed. However, they also described signs of a breakdown of command, such as officers and soldiers arguing with each other over whether certain abuses should be committed, or soldiers committing abuses after more senior officers had left. In several detention facilities, victims described being abused by gendarmes and police who brutalized them at random, but were occasionally stopped by more senior officers when the abuse went too far.
There appeared to be a well-coordinated gendarme operation on the morning of October 26 to deter RDR supporters from marching. During this operation, gendarmes fired upon and killed demonstrators in several different neighborhoods of Abidjan. Mostly RDR supporters and foreigners were rounded up and detained in at least five different Gendarme Bases. Once in detention, victims describe the presence of officers overseeing and directing the abuse and in some cases torture. In the Police Academy of Cocody, victims described being beaten and tortured by lower ranking policemen and officers, as well as by cadets.
While the shooting of thirty to forty detainees within the Camp Commando of Abobo might have been a spontaneous reaction by two or more gendarmes to the killing of their officer, the operation to capture porters to carry the dead and wounded, and subsequent operations to dispose of the dead in the forest at Banco showed signs of being a well-planned operation. Survivors describe the presence of one truck, two jeeps, and the involvement of some thirty gendarmes in this operation. According to victims and witnesses, the killing, particularly in Abobo, and torture within the Agban Gendarmerie camp, intensified considerably after the killing of the gendarme officer.
Throughout the election period, supporters of both the RDR and FPI had been united in their opposition to General Guei. However, on October 26, the day after Gbagbo declared himself president, Ouattara's supporters took to the streets, set up barricades and burned tires to demand new elections in which their leader could participate. While the military stayed in their barracks, the paramilitary gendarme and police launched operations to aggressively impede RDR militants from demonstrating. In many cases, paramilitary gendarmes and police actively sided with FPI mobs. In a few cases the state actors even conducted joint patrols and operations with FPI supporters. With militants from both sides armed with wooden sticks, iron bars, broken bottles, rocks and in a few cases hunting and automatic rifles, the RDR protests turned into pitched battles. This in turn degenerated into ethnic and religiously motivated mob violence.
Reports differ on the number of civilians killed and wounded in Abidjan during the election violence. The government of Ivory Coast says at least 164 people were killed during election violence in Abidjan alone. The FPI claims sixty of its supporters were killed in demonstrations on Oct. 24 and 25, and the RDR maintains 155 of its supporters were killed countrywide. The RDR claims to have treated 316 wounded individuals, mostly RDR, and in Abidjan the Ivorian Red Cross evacuated and/or treated 291 persons.
A twenty-one year-old man detained by paramilitary gendarmes on October 26 and later taken to the Camp Commando of Abobo tells how he witnessed the killing of some thirty other detainees inside the camp and was later taken to a forest on the outskirts of Abidjan where approximately fifteen were killed. He tells his story:
I'm an RDR party member and activist. On Thursday morning, October 26 at around 8:00 am I left my home in Abobo to participate in a pro-RDR march to protest the results of the elections. But near the Abobo Cultural Center we met up with a group of gendarmes. I was detained with about 20 other RDR militants. They didn't ask for our ID's. We were beaten really severely right there. From there we were taken on foot to a truck and from there to the Camp Commando of Abobo.
As we entered Camp Commando at around l0:00 AM, one of them said, 'say your last prayers.' When we arrived, there were already eight or nine other people detained. I could see they'd been beaten, badly beaten. Over the next minutes and hours several more groups were brought in. Almost all of us were Diola.
In Camp Commando I ran into a friend of mine, S, and he told me he'd been arrested while walking by Camp Commando. He explained that after stopping him they'd asked him for his ID and when they saw he was a Diola, he was arrested on the spot. There were two adolescents; one was a student, still in school uniform about thirteen or fourteen and another, a youth from Benin around fifteen.
They started beating us from the moment we got off the truck. They ordered us to lie down and whipped us with their red belts. At one point they threw a bucket of water mixed with some kind of burning pepper in it and people screamed from the pain it caused as it went into the open wounds. Then at around 1:00 pm they allowed us to sit up and then again told us to lie on our backs and face the sun. Another torture was when they threw tear gas at us and refused to allow us to move. There were about five gendarmes immediately around us, and others milling about.
Then at around 3:00-3:30 (it was just after the afternoon call to prayer which we could hear from a nearby mosque) I heard a siren and saw a car coming into the main entrance to the camp. A few gendarmes got out of the car and started yelling and shouting and crying. Then one of the gendarmes in blue just started shooting us. First he shot three newly arrested people with a pistol. It happened less than five meters from where I was sitting.
Then a few other gendarmes started shooting at us. They were yelling in a sobbing, angry way. They were in fits of emotion. One of them said, "We're going to kill you all; if our people are going to die then we'll kill you." As they were shooting I lay down and pretended I was dead. The youth from Benin was hit and lay just on top of me and was just crying, "Forgive me, have mercy on me." I could see my friend S. had been hit on the leg, throat and chest. And then [a gendarme] standing several meters away said, "Oh so you're not all dead" and I tried to pretend I was dead.
We all lay there, people dying were breathing heavily. I could hear a boy from Benin saying in a soft voice, "Give me water, I'm so thirsty, bring me water." After the shooting there were about thirty dead or almost dead, and more seriously wounded. Then about ten lightly injured.
Then about an hour or a little more later a new group of prisoners were brought in. Then those prisoners and those of us who weren't wounded, were ordered to load up the bodies onto a big blue truck. I loaded one person on the truck and then just stayed there trying not to be noticed.
Then at around 6:00 pm we took off. There were about fifteen gendarmes in our truck. They were dressed in full commando uniform and several had bandoleers wound around their wrists.
We headed north towards the Yopougon Prison and those of us still alive started talking to each other in whispers wondering if they were going to kill us or take us to the prison [in Yopougon]. But mostly we were just silent. There were about thirty to forty gendarmes in total participating in the operation.
Then we got to the place. We were terrified. Then they ordered us to unload the bodies. Since I was in the back of the truck I tried to stay there for as long as I possibly could. Then they ordered us to come and sit next to the dead and dying. Several of us were lying down trying to pretend we were dead but I was lucky because I had laid down first and then two others laid on top of me. It seemed like the dead had been separated from the wounded - maybe to make killing the survivors easier. I remember hearing them talking to each other saying, "Why is it only now you Northerners are protesting the election results; three weeks ago you didn't say anything. Now that the General is gone and Gbabgo is a civilian that you think you can take over." Then several of them, I couldn't really count, took up formation in front of us, we heard them loading their guns and the firing started. The boy on top of me received a lot of bullets. He screamed when he was hit and then started groaning and breathing heavily.
After a few minutes of firing, a few of them went around finishing people off. Then they walked near where I was and stopped, noticing the boy lying on top of me was still breathing. I was trying desperately to control my breathing so they wouldn't notice me. It was when they were finishing him off that I was hit. [He was wounded once in the arm.]
Then I heard one of them saying, "Let's burn all the bodies," and another said, "No, they're all dead." And then I heard the truck and jeeps leaving. I lay there, and after a few minutes saw someone get up from the pile of bodies. There were a few more who started saying, "Help us, help us." But they were dying and fell silent shortly after.
Nine men, several from the same extended family, were detained on October 26 by persons whom they thought were the police, and have yet to be accounted for. It is the most serious case of disappearance documented by Human Rights Watch. None of the security forces have acknowledged detaining the men. One of the witnesses, the wife of one of the victims, described the detention:
I am the wife of S. We have a four-year-old child and I'm nine months pregnant with our second. My husband is Ivorian as are all of those taken that day. They weren't involved in politics; most of them are long distance truck drivers and didn't have time for that. We are one of few Diola families living within our immediate area; there are Baoules, Betes and Agnis around us. Maybe that's why they targeted us.
The whole thing happened in less than five minutes. It was around 3:40 pm on October 26. I heard a knock on the door to the compound, and we heard them say, "It's the police and if you don't open, we'll kill you all." Then my husband opened the door and eight of them stormed into the family compound. Some were in t-shirts and jeans and others were in combats.
There was a handicapped man in one of the rooms in the compound and when his children started crying, the boss said he should be left alone. He was the only man they left.
Then our men were ordered to move out of the house and we [the wives] started crying and begging them to leave our husbands. One of them pushed me, but another said, "she's innocent - leave her." As they were taking them we heard them saying, "The Diola must stop following Alassane we'll finish them all, he's doing you wrong; if it weren't for him the Diola would be ok."
Some of the worst examples of physical and psychological torture occurred within the Agban Gendarmerie Camp in which some 100 - 200 Diola youths, RDR supporters and foreigners were held. Most victims were released within forty-eight hours of capture. A twenty-year-old tailor described what happened to him. Over twenty bruises, burns and small wounds on his head and body were clearly visible to Human Rights Watch researchers.
On Oct 26, I was participating in a march with other RDR militants when I was detained with five other guys. We were detained by about ten gendarmes who beat us with their red-rope belts as we walked the twenty meters to Agban camp. After reaching the camp they made us swim in the gutter, which was full of dirty water, broken bottles, human feces and garbage. One of them forced my head under the half-meter water. As we moved through the gutter, gendarmes were lined up and beat us as we moved by. Some were threatening to kill us and others were hitting us hard on the head with the butt of their rifles.
Then, they told us to take our clothes off and forced us to walk on our knees for over twenty meters. Then they continued beating us and one of them hit my penis with the hook on his red belt. It was so painful, it was bleeding and I started screaming. One of them said, "Oh if we've hurt you there, don't worry, we have doctors here," then he called another gendarme who sprayed a little can of what I think was tear gas on my penis, nose and eyes. At this point I almost lost consciousness.
Entering Camp Agban I saw about a hundred other prisoners. New people kept coming all the time in groups of two, three, five. We tried to sit down but there were so many of us it was hard to all sit at the same time. They didn't ask us any questions. They spoke of Alassane, of the RDR; they made us all say "Alassane is a Mousi" (Burkina be) and made us sing the national anthem. Then the beatings started again. They beat us using their belts, wooden sticks and iron bars. At one point they took our clothes, which were in a pile outside the entrance, put them on fire and went around dripping it on our legs and backs. They picked clothes with plastic in it - like sport suits because they burned better.
Throughout the day on October 26 and to a lesser extent on October 27, an estimated 400 - 500 mostly RDR supporters, northerners and foreigners were brought into the Police Academy in Cocody. Some detainees were arrested seemingly at random on the street; others were detained while participating in pro-RDR demonstrations and herded into police jeep and trucks. Victims describe being severely beaten, tortured and deprived of food and water for up to six days.
A nineteen-year old student was stopped by the police in Abobo while walking with a friend. After the police determined he was from the northern Diola tribe, he was detained for six days within the Police Academy. The deep, open sore on his knees and numerous lacerations on his head and back were clearly visible. He described his experience:
The police forced us to go with them after finding out we were Diola. They were arresting others and by the time we reached the police precinct, we were already eight or ten, all men. They searched us, stealing our money, then made us undress and then put us in police cells. They called us out two by two to write down our names and those who had RDR cards were more severely beaten. There were a few Malian and Guineans among us but they lied and said they were Ivorians.
While we were there other people continued to be brought in until we were around twenty - all men. Then around 3:00 or 4:00 pm they let us get dressed, put us all in a truck and told us they were taking us to the Police Academy. As we were going, the police started telling us they were going to kill us there.
Upon arrival, the police started beating us. As we were there, more and more people started arriving and by 9:00 pm or so there were about 300 people. Each time they came in someone would write down their name. On Friday morning they asked the foreigners to separate from the Ivorians. I could see there were a lot: over l00 Malians and about eighty from Burkina Faso and sixty to eighty from Guinea. They kept the ones from Nigeria and Niger together.
I stayed in for several days and was beaten by many policemen and student policemen.
We were all in one big room and they tortured us in many ways. First were the constant beatings; with batons, iron bars, wood, cut branches from trees around the compound. The police kept waking us up by throwing cold water on us. Then they had us - two by two - crawl a distance on our knees and the one who arrived last was beaten. They'd put two of us together and order us to fight - and if they say we're faking, they beat us up. Sometimes they stood on our backs asked us to tell them how heavy they were.
There were about five women inside (they weren't naked) and the police told them to play with the genitals of several men until they got an erection. When the men couldn't do it the police beat them. Then they asked them to dance close with the women.
I don't think anyone died in custody but I saw a good number of people who'd lost consciousness and people who couldn't stand anymore and so many of us were bleeding and cut all over. Thursday and Friday were the worst days for beating.
They made us chant "Alassane is Mousi" and "Gbago President." On Friday some of the police were talking about a gendarme who had been killed and then on Saturday, a few police brought in a newspaper with the news and pictures of the Youpogon massacre and said, "This is the way you should've been killed...but you're lucky you're brought to police academy." Others even said, "This is the way you'll be killed as well."
I finally got out when my friend's mother paid 4000 CFA [approximately $5.46 USD] each for our freedom. Most of the parents were doing that. By that time it was a way of making money off of us.
The response of the international community before, during, and after the killings and other serious human rights violations in Ivory Coast has been grossly inadequate. Human Rights makes the following recommendations to the government of Ivory Coast, the international community, and the United Nations:
To the new government of the Ivory Coast:
· Immediately take all possible measures to halt the excessive use of force by all security personnel; establish safeguards to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of persons in detention; and curb ethnic and religious violence and violence against foreigners.
· Press for accountability for human rights violations in the Ivory Coast that have taken place since October 2000.
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