By Tedenek Fantaye
In the chaos and violence that followed Côte d’Ivoire’s presidential election in November 2010, the Catholic Mission of Duékoué became a haven for almost 30,000 terrified people fleeing violence.
But earlier this month, a final group of 737 internally displaced people (IDP) were moved to the Nahibly camp and 11 others returned to their villages in western Côte d’Ivoire, which was one of the areas worst hit by the violence.
The turmoil only ended in April last year when forces loyal to election winner Alassane Ouattara defeated incumbent Laurent Gbagbo’s supporters. At the peak of the crisis in 2011, about 1 million people were internally displaced and there were 200,000 Ivorian refugees in 13 countries: Liberia, Ghana and Togo receiving the largest numbers.
As the situation worsened in 2011, armed groups killed hundreds of people in and around the town of Duékoué and the situation was exacerbated by disputes over land and cocoa plantations.
At this desperate time, the Catholic Mission of Duékoué opened its gates and its two hectares of land to thousands of frightened men, women and children, just as it had done during earlier crises in 2002 and 2005. At one stage, it hosted more than 27,500 displaced Ivorian civilians.
UNHCR and a dozen humanitarian organizations joined efforts by the priests and nuns of the Catholic Mission to assist the IDPs, despite the magnitude of problems and the limited resources available. The new guests lived in crowded makeshift shelters and facilities were frugal. They were also safe, but there was a constant fear that the armed men would enter the sanctuary.
Father Cyprian, the parish priest, said that at one time there was so much fighting going on around the compound that they had to lie on the ground for 48 hours, unable to eat or go to the toilet. He recalled that before the aid organizations came to help, 40 people died from cholera and malaria.
When the conflict ended in April 2011 and the security situation improved, most of the IDPs returned to their villages and some 5,000 were moved to Nahibly camp, which was built by UNHCR and its partners in June 2011 to decongest the Catholic Mission and offer more services and facilities as well as security.
Presently, there are close to 5,000 IDPs in Nahibly and these are the last displaced people in the area waiting to go home. They still worry about security.
Pauline was among the 11 people who decided to return to their villages, rather than go to Nahibly. But she will now have to live there as the head of household and from scratch – her husband was killed by armed men and her house and restaurant torched. Despite the terrible memories, she said: “I prefer to return to my village in Diahouin because I have been told that I will be assisted with material to rebuild. I have lost everything I had,” she said.
UNHCR transported Pauline and her family back to the village, passing her husband’s grave, triggering an outburst of emotion and tears from the widow.
UNHCR and its implementing partner African Women Welfare Committee have constructed a market for women in the Carrefour neighbourhood of Duékoué. Income-generation projects in carpentry, sewing and hairdressing have also been established in several districts that will help people like Pauline to rebuild.
At present, there are a total of 86,000 IDPs around the country, mostly living with host families. Meanwhile the priests and nuns at the mission will return tending to the needs of the Catholic faithful in the town and surrounding villages and carrying out regular humanitarian work.