COTE D’IVOIRE: Local UN staff easy targets in the crisis

Cote d Ivoire UN Soldiers

Cote d Ivoire UN Soldiers

ABIDJAN, 24 January 2011 (IRIN) – While the UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) faces a climate of orchestrated and growing hostility, local UN employees, even those working with agencies completely separate from UNOCI, are living in fear.

All local UN staff deemed non-essential have been instructed to stay at home until further notice, and not report to work, while many international staff within ONUCI now live permanently in their offices, sleeping on camp beds.

For Francois*, a driver with a separate UN agency, the current crisis is a cause of extreme stress, not least because it resurrects traumatic memories of his abduction by rebel forces almost a decade ago, a kidnapping from which he was lucky to escape with his life.

“This crisis is having a severe impact on local UN staff. We face all kinds of problems, especially related to our security. We feel targeted by those who support [Laurent] Gbagbo,” François told IRIN. Gbagbo has refused to relinquish power despite the international community confirming his political rival Alassane Ouattara as elected president, a decision which enraged Gbagbo loyalists.

“I live in a district dominated by Gbagbo supporters. It is very difficult when you are a UN employee. It’s not that we are attacked, but there has been a lot of mistrust since the election.

“The word is that as soon as the situation degenerates, we will be the first to be targeted. We have had indirect threats.” In districts of Abidjan where Gbagbo enjoys strong support, there is often a strong presence of Jeunes Patriotes, a vocal, highly politicized youth movement, whose leader, Charles Blé Goudé, has been among the UN’s most virulent critics.

“There are the Jeunes Patriotes here, who know me and who know that I work for the UN,” François told IRIN. “When the UN came out in support of Ouattara, I decided not to go out at night any more. We were told by our employer not to go to work, to limit our trips outside our home, and to be wary of entering into arguments.

“Now I don’t tell people I work for the UN. If I do, I take care to stress I do not work for UNOCI.” François said circumstances made it necessary to conceal his work identity. “When you hear such hostility to the UN in public places, it is frightening. You don’t know what will happen tomorrow.

“I know colleagues who have been verbally attacked and even threatened with death. One, who was on mission in Guiglo [Moyen-Cavally Region, western Côte d’Ivoire], was warned by a girlfriend to leave, because she had heard rumours of plans to attack UN personnel.”

François said the deteriorating political climate and the growing crescendo of propaganda meant growing stress for him and his family. “On television there are no words of peace. Just talk of imminent attacks and ‘we will defend ourselves’. It makes me frightened to the core. I don’t sleep well anymore. But I have to hide my fear from my seven children [aged 3-22].

“I find it very hard not being able to work. It has actually made me ill. I am used to working, and sitting around for two months is very hard for me.

“I lived through the war. I was even taken hostage by rebels for two months in 2002 in the west of the country, where I fell into an ambush. There were 23 of us. Only seven came out alive. People were killed in front of us.

“With all I have seen in the past, I don’t want it to be repeated. But we are seeing it again.

“It’s not that we are finding bodies in the street every day, but no there is no sense of security.

“I don’t have much hope for peace. All you hear is talk of war. We had hope before the elections but since then, and with the failure of mediation efforts, I am fearful for the future.

“Local staff are not very well treated here. Since the start of the crisis, if a local staff member gets into trouble, no-one is available to go and help them…. I am not aware of any counselling services available to local staff in the agency I work with.”

*Not his real name