Something’s stirring in the east; something’s stirring in the west (Guest post by Ilmari Käihkö)

The Ivorian refugees in Grand Gedeh are a common sight both in the county capital as well as the many surrounding villages. Even more importantly, the border between Ivory Coast and Liberia is porous and poorly patrolled by the Liberian authorities. Both Ivorians and Liberians cross at will, just as they have for a long time. This is especially the case with the Krahn, the most predominant ethnic group in Grand Gedeh, who are spread evenly across the border (in the Ivory Coast they are called Guere).

There are about 69,000 Ivorian refugees in Liberia, most of them in Grand Gedeh. Additionally an uncounted number of Liberians returned to Liberia following the Ivorian crisis and the influx of “northerners”, often erroneously nicknamed “Burkinabe”, supporters of President Alassane Ouattara to the western parts of Ivory Coast. These refugees and exiles are now sitting around in camps, villages and the county capital Zwedru, many of them spending their days loitering or sleeping. Their mood is one of depression and frustration – not many have high expectations of returning back home anytime soon, if ever.

An important date for all these Ivorians and Liberians is the forthcoming announcement on the 18th of June whether the International Criminal Court case against President Laurent Gbagbo is to proceed. According to the prosecution Gbagbo is responsible for the deaths of 3,000 people in the post-election violence in 2010. Most of my informants have another view and keep repeating that “Gbagbo is a good man”, whereas Ouattara has not only wrecked the Ivorian economy in a single year but is additionally increasingly disliked by the same rebels that brought him to power. True or not, it is easy to see that many of the refugees have enjoyed good years under Gbagbo thanks to their political connections. These same connections make them unwelcome across the border as long as Ouattara is in power.

What is however undeniable is the violence in Ivory Coast. According to the ICC most violence was committed by the supporters of Gbagbo, but the people on the Liberian side of the border naturally only tell of the violence committed by the opposing side. Many have shown me a video called “Yopougon” (an area of Abidjan particularly affected by the unrest) where the alleged supporters of Ouattara can be seen throwing living humans into a pyre. But this violence continues ever still. One elder in a village counted that there are five young Liberian men that have been killed in Ivory Coast as spies, the last one, Junior Gaye, in April. The total number of victims this year only might be anything from a dozen to ten times more. This means that violence is continuing beyond headlines. The United Nations facilitated a meeting between Liberian and Ivorian authorities including elders from the Liberian towns close to the border last Saturday, but from the information I’ve received the meeting ended without result. Liberian government now says that no Liberian should cross the border to Ivory Coast because of insecurity.

Historical precedents cause some alarm, however. One of the most common reasons for fighting in Liberia has been simply returning home. As one former fighter expressed himself, the only way he could cross back to Liberia from Ivory Coast was with a gun. The same goes for just about all factions opposing Charles Taylor’s government.

The case might not be entirely different for the Ivorians and Liberians from Ivory Coast who supported Gbagbo. As one Liberian returnee explained, if Gbagbo is sentenced they have no other course than to take to arms if they are to return home. And the chances of Gbagbo being set free and made president are slim. Reports indicate that some cross-border violence has already taken place. Something might be stirring in the east, as well as the west.

Ilmari Käihkö is currently based in Grand Gedeh. He is doing fieldwork within our Mid-level commander project and for a PhD thesis at Uppsala University.

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