A few days ago Ivory Coast’s former president/dictator Laurent Gbagbo was sent from his house arrest in the northern ivorian city of Korhogo to the International Criminal Court in the Hague.
For a very long time – almost a decade – having Gbagbo tried at the ICC for crimes against humanity seemed a distant and unlikely best-case scenario. Kind of have to pinch myself to be sure that this is really happening. Anyhow, it is – to use a great british expression – bloody marvellous, and it’s going to be interesting to follow the trial.
This is personal
I’ve never met Gbagbo myself, but I’ve had a less pleasant encounter with elements of his army and a quasi encounter with his death squads, so unlike – well, all other criminal trials – I have some sort of personal connection to this one.
Back in 2003 I went to a remembrance ceremony for the Yopougon massacre in 2000 at the Williamsville cemetary in Abidjan. And yes, I did some crazy stuff back then – I hope I haven’t stopped! Here’s the story of the Yopougon massacre told by Belgian sociologist Benoit Scheuer:
[…] The result was a general climate of discrimination against people who were not “pure Ivorians”. Half the country was stripped of its moral dignity. Policemen would take the identity cards of citizens who were not “sufficiently Ivorian” and tear them up in front of them, in the middle of the street. Then they would tell them, “So you think you’re an Ivorian? Now try and prove it!”
This verbal and moral onslaught inevitably turned to physical violence. The first act of the tragedy came in October 2000, when the police at Yopougon in the suburbs of Abidjan rounded up 59 ethnic Dioulas. Two of them escaped; the rest were shot dead in cold blood.
The Yopougon massacre was not an isolated incident, a mistake, a moment of collective madness: it was part of a deliberate strategy of terror orchestrated by the state. The murderers could easily have hidden the bodies. But instead, just as the Serbian militias did in ex-Yugoslavia, they left them on display, turning their deaths into theatre. The aim was to instil fear into people. The corpses were meant as a message to all northerners: “You should get out of here, because if you don’t, this is what will happen to you!”
In October 2003 it was a group of about 200 persons, mainly northerners, who gathered at the cemetery where those killed in the Yopougon massacre rested. The event was a combination of a religious ceremony with both muslim and christian imams/priests present as well as a political statement by Ouattara’s RDR party who had sent quite a few people.
At the start of the ceremony 30 or so soldiers from the regular army loyal to Gbagbo showed up and positioned themselves 150 meters away from us. Then 20 minutes into the ceremony we heard loud gunshots. It turned out it was the soldiers firing in the air above us as intimidation. The ceremony kept going as if nothing happened. The ivorians next to me said not to worry, that it was always like this, but also indicated in which direction to run if the soldiers started to aim lower. Fortunately nothing happened, the ceremony ended, and we all went home.
As to the encounter with Gbagbo’s death squads, during the same visit to the Ivory Coast in 2003 I stayed at the home of a human rights activist in Yopougon. This story starts with me flying back to Sweden, but 36 hours after my flight four men with kalashnikovs did a raid the home of the human rights activist. They came at 4am, two stayed behind to cut off escape routes, and two broke in. While they were trying to break in, the activist climbed the wall to the neighbour’s house and hid there. The armed men carried away a housekeeper thinking it was the activist, but after realising their mistake let the housekeeper go, and left empty handed.
Now, I don’t now for sure who did this attack, but Gbagbo (and his wife) had a somewhat documented habit of taking out people threatening his power this way. Hopefully it will all be clearer in the trial.