(Dakar) - Ivorian militias and Liberian mercenaries loyal to Laurent Gbagbo killed at least 37 West African immigrants in a village near the border with Liberia on March 22, 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. In response to the intensifying abuses and descent into civil war, the United Nations Security Council on March 30 imposed strong measures on Gbagbo, the incumbent president, who has refused to step down and cede power to his rival, Alassane Ouattara.
Witnesses in Côte d'Ivoire told Human Rights Watch that armed men, some in uniform and others in civilian clothes, massacred the villagers, presumed to be Ouattara supporters, possibly in retaliation for the capture of nearby areas by pro-Ouattara forces. Several other witnesses described numerous incidents in which real or perceived Ouattara supporters were killed by pro-Gbagbo security forces and militiamen in Abidjan. Ouattara's troops are spreading south and east, seizing several key towns, including the political capital, Yamoussoukro, and moving toward Abidjan, the commercial capital, in a very fluid situation.
"Côte d'Ivoire has reached the boiling point," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "We are extremely concerned about the potential for further human rights atrocities, given the killings by both sides and the continued incitement to violence through the media by Gbagbo cronies."
In a four-month organized campaign of human rights abuses, which probably rise to the level of crimes against humanity, Gbagbo's forces have killed, "disappeared," and raped real and perceived supporters of Ouattara, Human Rights Watch has found. Armed men supporting Ouattara have also engaged in numerous extrajudicial executions of presumed pro-Gbagbo fighters and supporters.
According to UN estimates, approximately 500 people, the vast majority civilians, have lost their lives as a result of the violence. In March alone, forces aligned with Gbagbo killed at least 50 civilians by firing mortars into neighborhoods known to be Ouattara strongholds. Pro-Gbagbo forces have also beaten and hacked and burned to death numerous perceived Ouattara supporters at checkpoints set up by militias.
On March 25, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that between 700,000 and one million people have been displaced, largely from Abidjan. On March 29, UNHCR reported that 116,000 Ivorians have fled to eight West African countries: Liberia, Ghana, Togo, Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, and Nigeria.
On March 30, the UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution that calls on Gbagbo to leave office and urges a political solution to the crisis. The resolution demands an end to violence against both civilians and the UN Operation in Côte d'Ivoire (UNOCI). It urges the UN operation to use all necessary means to carry out its mandate to protect civilians under imminent threat of physical violence.
In addition, the Security Council resolution calls upon all parties to cooperate fully with an international commission of inquiry put in place in late March by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate human rights violations committed in Côte d'Ivoire. Finally, the resolution adopts targeted sanctions against Gbagbo and four close associates, including his wife, Simone.
Human Rights Watch has urged all parties to the conflict to respect international humanitarian law and end the targeting of civilians and extrajudicial executions, and has called for UN peacekeepers to enhance civilian protection. The UN operation needs equipment, such as helicopters, as well as additional deployments of well-trained and equipped troops, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch has also stressed the importance of accountability for atrocities. The Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) has repeatedly indicated that it will prosecute crimes committed in Côte d'Ivoire if the ICC's requirements for investigation - which relate to the gravity of the crimes and the inadequacy of national proceedings - are met. An investigation could be triggered by a referral of the situation by the UN Security Council or any state that is party to the court, or if the prosecutor decides to act on his own authority. While Côte d'Ivoire is not a party to the court, it accepted the court's jurisdiction through a declaration in 2003. The Security Council resolution references this declaration and states that the report of the commission of inquiry should be provided to the Security Council and "other relevant international bodies."
"The massacre of West African immigrants, targeting of civilians in Abidjan, and massive displacement are deeply troubling and require an effective response," Bekele said. "The UN should prepare for the worst and do all it can to protect everyone in Côte d'Ivoire who is at grave risk of horrific abuse."
Massacre at Bedi-Goazon
Human Rights Watch interviewed five witnesses to the March 22 massacre by pro-Gbagbo militias of at least 37 West African immigrants. The killings took place in the village of Bedi-Goazon, 32 kilometers from the town of Guiglo in western Côte d'Ivoire, the day after combatants loyal to Ouattara had captured the nearby town of Blolequin. Bedi-Goazon is home both to Ivorians and to an estimated 400 other West Africans, most of whom work on the cacao plantations in western Côte d'Ivoire. The witnesses said that many of the attackers, who spoke English, appeared to be Liberian, while the vast majority of victims were immigrants from Mali and Burkina Faso.
The witnesses said armed men fighting on behalf of Ouattara passed through Bedi-Goazon as they advanced toward Guiglo at approximately 1 p.m. on the day of the attack. At about 3:30 p.m., witnesses said, at least four cars containing scores of pro-Gbagbo militiamen, some in military and some in civilian dress, and some speaking English while others spoke French, attacked the part of the village where the West African immigrants live. The witnesses said the militiamen killed the immigrants inside their homes and as they attempted to flee.
Human Rights Watch received a list of 27 Malian victims, but witnesses said that the Malians' relatives, who had fled into the surrounding forest and later briefly returned to the village, counted up to 40 dead. The witnesses said the attackers were armed with automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenades, and machetes. The witnesses believed their village had been attacked in reprisal for the military advance in the area by armed Ouattara supporters. As the attackers left, they pillaged and in some instances burned houses, looting any items of value, including motorcycles, money, televisions, mattresses, and clothing.
Several witnesses described a clear ethnic element to the targeting of victims. A 36-year-old witness said: "They came in accusing us of being rebels, and said, ‘If you're Dioula [from Northern Côte d'Ivoire], you can try to flee if you can, if you're Guere [natives of the area and largely supporters of Gbagbo], stay, we're not concerned with you. But if you're Malian or Mossi [Burkinabe, from Burkina Faso], we will kill you.' And then they started killing."
An 18-year old Malian woman described hearing the attackers yelling, "Fire them, fire them all," in English as they descended from their vehicles and started to kill. She said she and many other women and children were saved by a female Liberian rebel who intervened to stop them from being killed.
A few witnesses, including a 16-year-old interviewed by Human Rights Watch, were wounded by machetes during the attack: "They beat me, saying they were going to cut my throat; they slashed my arms with a machete saying we were rebels."
He and others, like this 28-year-old Malian man, survived after paying money to the attackers:
At around 3 p.m. we heard the sound of heavy trucks coming, and ran into our houses. The men fired into the air, then started breaking down the doors...saying, "Fire, fire" and, "You're rebels, we'll kill all of you." We heard shots, and screams. They were killing people. My family and I were cowering in our home; after breaking down my door they screamed that I should give them money, or they'd kill me. I gave them all I had - 84,000 CFA, and the keys to 3 motorcycles. I begged them not to kill me....I was terrified...but it saved my life. The commander said, "If it wasn't for this money, you'd be dead." But not everyone had money... they killed a Burkinabe man in front of me...and later in a nearby house, I saw them kill 5 women... just a few meters away. They screamed, "Give us money!" The women pleaded saying they didn't have any....then they shot them...three inside the house, two just outside. They ordered four of us to carry the goods they looted to their truck.... As I walked through the village I saw at least 20 bodies and heard women and children wailing.... I saw them setting houses on fire and was told some villagers were burned inside.
A 34-year-old man from Burkina Faso described seeing 25 people killed, and noted what he believed to be a clear motive for the attack:
As they were killing people, they accused us of being rebels...They said other things in English that I couldn't understand. I saw 25 people killed with my own eyes. They killed women, with children, with men. They said they'd kill us all. They forced the people out and they killed them, just like they said. Most people who live there in the village are Burkinabe, Malians, and Senoufo (an ethnic group from Northern Côte d'Ivoire.) They killed people in front of the door to their house after pulling them out. One man opened his door, two guys dragged him out, and they fired their Kalashes [Kalashnikov rifles] into him. Also I saw an entire family killed. The man, two wives, the man's little brother, and their kids - two kids 9 and 5 years old. They killed them like it was nothing.
Ethnic Targeting in Abidjan
Since armed men loyal to Ouattara attempted to expand their control of areas in Abidjan into the Adjamé and Williamsburg neighborhoods on March 16, dozens of civilians have been killed, either deliberately, or through excessive use of force. Immigrants from West Africa and active members of political parties allied to Ouattara were particularly targeted.
A 40 year-old man from Burkina Faso was one of nine West African immigrants detained by armed and uniformed men he believed to be policemen at a checkpoint in Adjamé on March 29, and later taken into a police station and shot. Six of the men died, and the other three, including the witness, were wounded:
At 8:30 a.m., I was stopped by a checkpoint in Adjamé on my way to work. They asked for my ID and after seeing my name, told me to get into a 4x4 nearby. I got in; there were 8 others there. The police vehicle took us to the 11th police commissariat. Just behind the commissariat there is a camp, which is where it all happened. The police pushed us in and yelled at us, "Are you brothers of the rebellion?" I said no but obviously it wasn't a real question. Then they said, "If you are Burkinabe, go over there to the left. If you are Malian, go to the left." So we all went left. Then they turned left and fired on us...6 of us died. I got shot in the arm and the kidneys and it looked bad so they left me for dead. The police left directly after. It was clear they were police because of their uniform; even the 4x4 was a police vehicle, marked as such, and the camp was the police camp at the commissariat. Two of the dead were Burkinabes; I learned the other six were Malian, including the two other survivors. I couldn't sleep last night because of the sutures and the memories. I will try tonight.
An Ivorian driver described the March 28 killing of three Malian butchers by militiamen wearing black T-shirts and red armbands, which are typically worn by neighborhood men. The men shot the butchers as they were in the process of fetching a cow in the Williamsville neighborhood. A Senegalese man who was shot in the arm in the Adjamé neighborhood by armed men in uniform on March 17 described how two of his Senegalese friends were shot dead in the same incident: "The armed men pointed their guns at them shot them...they didn't ask them any questions, they just shot them point blank."
Another witness described the March 30 killing of a civilian who was stopped at a militia checkpoint in Adjamé:
At noon, the militiamen stopped a pick-up truck and asked the driver and his apprentice for their ID papers. The driver was told to go ahead, but they pulled the apprentice out of the passenger seat and fired four times at him; his body is still in the street. This is their way of targeting foreigners...they judge your background from your ID papers. If you're an ECOWAS national or from the north, they take you out and - too often - shoot and kill. With some ten such checkpoints in Adjamé now, these kinds of incidents and killings are becoming the norm.
Another witness described how he saw local militiamen conducting house-to-house searches and manning checkpoints on March 21 and 22 in Williamsville. He said he saw them kill three people, including two of his friends who were murdered in his house.
The violence in Adjamé provoked the mass exodus of West African immigrants and Ivorians of northern descent from Abidjan or led them to take refuge in West African embassies.