One year ago today, forces loyal to President Alassane Ouattara captured the western town of Duékoué as they swept through Côte d’Ivoire before ultimately arresting former President Laurent Gbagbo. After taking over the town, pro-Ouattara forces committed horrific abuses, killing several hundred people.
A year later, no one has been credibly investigated, much less arrested, for these crimes. And yet their victims are as deserving of justice as those who suffered abuses by Gbagbo’s forces as he clung to power.
Duékoué had long been a hub for pro-Gbagbo militiamen. When I was there in July 2010, before the post-election crisis erupted, northern Ivorians and West African immigrants described ongoing persecution by the militiamen. Local residents also endured widespread killings and rapes by the militiamen during and after the 2002-2003 armed conflict. As President Ouattara’s Republican Forces began their military offensive in the West last March, pro-Gbagbo militiamen, often with Liberian mercenaries, again murdered perceived Ouattara supporters.
After several days of fighting, pro-Ouattara forces – including the Republican Forces and several allied militia groups – took effective control of Duékoué on March 29. Some members of these forces proceeded to retaliate viciously against certain groups presumed to support the former president, and particularly targeted male youth from the Guéré ethnic group who had formed the core of Gbagbo’s militias in the West.
Human Rights Watch interviewed eight women who watched the execution of their family members during the Duékoué massacre. A 29-year-old woman described how a 4x4 drove up as her family was fleeing the Carrefour neighborhood, and three men jumped out in military fatigues, armed with Kalashnikov rifles. The men pulled her husband away, as she was carrying a 6-month-old baby, and chanted, “You are all Guérés, you who voted Gbagbo! You didn’t vote ADO [Alassane Dramane Ouattara], we are going to kill you all.” All three men opened fire on her husband, killing him instantly. The attackers then abducted the woman’s 15-year-old brother, forcing him into a truck where several other youth were already held.
Another woman said: “They went house-to-house and took the men out to kill them. Two of them broke down my door and entered the house; they forced my husband outside. Several others were carrying a flame and set the house on fire. I came out screaming behind them, and they shot my husband at point-blank range with a large gun.”
Photos seen by Human Rights Watch, taken by someone who helped bury the bodies, show that elderly men and a pregnant woman were among the victims. The findings from a UN investigation that began on April 1 reported that “certain victims were clearly executed while fleeing…. Bodies were [also] discovered laying on their stomach, likely indicating that they had been killed from behind. Others had had their throats slit or been burned alive. Women, children, and the elderly also figured among the victims.”
Pro-Ouattara forces effectively burned the Carrefour neighborhood to the ground, along with several other Guéré villages around Duékoué. Indeed, throughout their military offensive, pro-Ouattara forces razed villages and committed executions and rape.
Despite its promise to provide impartial justice, the Ouattara government has not accounted for what happened during the Duékoué massacre, a disconcerting omission given the scale and symbolic significance of the abuses. At the same time, more than 120 people from the Gbagbo camp have been charged by military or civilian prosecutors.
It’s not as if the government doesn’t know where to start in investigating the Duékoué massacre. Amadé Ouérémi has been individually named as having been involved in the Duékoué massacre, either directly or through command responsibility, in reports published by Human Rights Watch and the UN Operations in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI). The Ivorian government’s own state-owned Fraternité-Matin wrote an article in September 2011 stating that there were “suspicions” of Amadé’s role in the “Duékoué massacres.” It continued, “The villagers clearly recognized members of his group in the attack on the Carrefour neighborhood of Duékoué. An attack during which the chief of Bagohouo, 41 people from the same village, and hundreds of others perished.”
Why, then, is Amadé still at large one year later? He is not directly associated with the Republican Forces (though Duékoué residents said Amadé’s forces sometimes fought alongside them). Amadé does not appear to command a large number of soldiers. He appears, on the surface, to be one of the easiest – and potentially most significant – targets for prosecution, were the government actually interested in acting on its promises of ensuring impartial justice.
In mid-January, a government minister told Human Rights Watch that it was not possible from a security perspective to credibly investigate Amadé’s role in the massacre. When asked about this, a high-level UNOCI official said, “If they wanted to arrest Amadé, they could arrest Amadé.” Five months earlier, on August 10, UNOCI disarmed about 90 members of Amadé’s group. In October, there was a “second phase” of the disarmament, in which additional munitions were collected and the men’s military-style uniforms were burned.
In meeting with government officials and some foreign diplomats, I have had the sense that they feel the status quo must not be shaken, lest security be negatively affected. Côte d’Ivoire’s history, however, shows that the failure to combat impunity and ensure an independent judiciary does not help national security, but rather foments discontent and division.
Investigations and prosecutions are essential for the return of the rule of law in Côte d’Ivoire. They would send a powerful message that the Ouattara government understands that the post-election conflict included grave crimes that caused the loss of life on both sides of the nation’s political and ethnic divide. The continued impunity for the Duékoué massacre provides a daily reminder that justice is serving only the victors.
The communal divides that have fueled Côte d’Ivoire’s massive human rights abuses will only be healed when people like Amadé are brought to justice.
Matt Wells is the Côte d’Ivoire researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the organization’s October 2011 report on the post-election crisis, “They Killed Them Like It Was Nothing”: The Need for Justice for Cote d’Ivoire’s Post-Election Crimes.