Bloody Standoff In Ivory Coast Edges Closer To Civil War

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A bloody battle for power has been escalating in the West African nation of Ivory Coast. More than 400 people have been killed since disputed presidential elections in November. Most are believed to be supporters of opposition leader, Alassane Ouattara. Ouattara was declared winner of the poll but incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo has refused to step down. For the latest on the conflict, host Michel Martin speaks with the West Africa correspondent for the Associated Press, Rukmini Callimachi. Be advised that this conversation might not be suitable for all listeners.


We return now to an international story that we've been following over the past couple of months, to the Ivory Coast. The West African nation has not gotten as much attention recently as the uprisings in Libya or Egypt, but a battle for power there has escalated in recent weeks with gruesome results. More than 400 people are believed to have been killed in the past three months. Nearly all of them are believed to have been supporters of opposition leader Alassane Ouattara.

Ouattara has widely been viewed by the international community as the legitimate winner of the presidential election last November. But the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, has refused to leave the presidential palace. Recently, Rukmini Callimachi, the West Africa correspondent for the Associated Press who's been reporting on the Ivory Coast since the election, was able to document evidence that mass killings have in fact occurred. She's with us now from the country's largest city, Abidjan.

And as a warning to our listeners, this could be a graphic conversation, so please be advised. Rukmini, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. RUKMINI CALLIMACHI (Associated Press): Thank you. It's great to be here today.

MARTIN: Now, I'm going to ask you how things got to where they are now in a minute. But first, I wanted to ask you to bring us up to date on some recent events. We understand that Alassane Ouattara, the opposition leader who, as we said, has been recognized by the international community, anyway, as the winner of the presidential election, he had been essentially confined to a hotel in the capital, but we understand that he recently left for the first time. Do we know where he went and what came of that?

Ms. CALLIMACHI: Yeah, he had left by U.N. helicopter to go to Addis Ababa in East Africa for a meeting of the African Union. And the AU has been involved in trying to negotiate this impasse that they're finding themselves in. And both him and the sitting president who's refusing to cede office, were invited to go there today and tomorrow. Ouattara has gone, and Gbagbo, his opponent, apparently, has not.

MARTIN: Has not. And to that end, we mentioned that there seems to be escalating violence directed at those who don't support Gbagbo. We know that the army opened fire on a women's march for the second time this week. That was yesterday. We understand that four people were killed there. Is this a new kind of level of violence, or has this been going on all along?

Ms. CALLIMACHI: I think it's been slowly escalating, but at the end of last month, definitely, things changed and went into a higher gear. And the reason for that is Ouattara's side, his supporters, their side was absolutely being pummeled by Gbagbo's security forces. They were going into neighborhoods. The U.N. has said that they've even gone in with heavy artillery, with mortars, shelling. And around the last week of February, a rebel group that's allied with Ouattara has infiltrated some of these neighborhoods, and they're now fighting back.

MARTIN: The U.N. has warned that without some kind of urgent action, the situation could lead to genocide. Why do they say that?

Ms. CALLIMACHI: I think the word genocide is too strong. The person who has said that was, in fact, Ouattara's representative to the U.N. I think what we have here is a potential for civil war. And I think we're very, very close to that. As a journalist working here, because Ouattara has been recognized by the international community as being the rightful winner of last year's race, he is seen as being allied with the West, with America, with the European Union, with foreigners.

So we as journalists have to be extremely careful. There's barricades all over the city, and if we happen to run into one that's run by Gbagbo's use, it can be very dangerous.

MARTIN: What is the U.N.'s role at this point? What is the U.N. saying at this junction? I also want to mention that yesterday, President Obama said that he would authorize $12 million to the Ivory Coast to help refugees. So - but what is the U.N.'s role at this juncture?

Ms. CALLIMACHI: I'm afraid to say that I think the perception of the U.N. is that they have been very much cowed. The U.N. is located inside a base in the capital. Every time that they try to go out, Gbagbo's security forces and youth militias have tried to attack their convoys. Some peacekeepers have been hurt, and more than a dozen U.N. cars have been set on fire. So it's very dangerous for them.

I think they find themselves in a very difficult position, which is: What are you supposed to do in this kind of situation? They have, on very few occasions, shot in the air. And as soon as they do that, even though they haven't actually hurt any civilians, on state television, Gbagbo's broadcasting arm shows images of dead people and accuses the U.N. of having open fire on the population of Ivory Coast.

MARTIN: Is there any evidence of that?

Ms. CALLIMACHI: Not at all. Not at all.

MARTIN: And I wanted to speak to your reporting on the specific question. There had been, you know, reports of mass killings, and you recently were recognized by the Associated Press for your courage and tenacity in trying to document this. Why don't you just tell us what you found, if you would. And, again, I want to emphasize that this may be a difficult conversation for some people to hear. So, please proceed.

Ms. CALLIMACHI: Thank you. What happened is in January, the United Nations reported that they have found evidence of a mass grave inside the capital. The mass grave is located, they said, in a place on the side of the highway in a suburb of Abidjan called Indotre(ph). And our local correspondent here tried go there. He was turned around. We tried sending drivers there. But the area was heavily militarized, and it was impossible to get to the spot. The United Nations themselves was unable to get to the spot.

So the investigation started there. When I came to Abidjan in late January, I went to see U.N. and ask them, you know, where exactly is this place? And they surprised me by telling me that they have now received eye-witness reports that the bodies that had been left outside on the side of the road had been moved. And where had they been moved to? They've been moved to the morgue.

And if you think about it, that's - isn't that the perfect cover-up? Where better to hide bodies than inside a morgue, because that's where bodies are supposed to be? When I tried to go to the morgue, I tried for almost two weeks to get into that morgue and several others. I was turned around at every single moment. There was panic, you know, in their reaction to me being there.

I was finally, through a lot of work, able to find the owner of one the morgues, and he told me that he could not actually let me inside and why. It was because, he said, that there were government minders from the Laurent Gbagbo administration that had been posted outside his morgue and were watching who was going in or out. They were watching for reporters, and they were watching for human rights workers.

So I could not go into the morgue. But what he did was the second best thing, which is he let me come to see him, and he opened the laptop of the morgue and let me note down the names of all - it was 113 bodies that I was able to confirm through looking at his list. And not just that, they're being kept there, and relatives who have been able to identify their dead are not being allowed to take them back. Why? Because if you take the body out and you do an autopsy, then there's evidence that that person was killed by a bullet wound rather than by cancer.

So it's created this really awful situation, where even those people that know that their husbands or fathers have been killed, they cannot get them out of the morgue.

MARTIN: And you also pointed out that the smell is overwhelming. I mean, not to be - to put too fine a point on it, you're saying that it is - the situation is exactly as one would expect.


MARTIN: That it's this overwhelming, overpowering, truly sickening. But you also pointed out that you can then, elsewhere in the capital, you can go to the market and buy, you know, brie and parmesan. Why is that possible? How is that possible?

Ms. CALLIMACHI: You're absolutely right. And that is the contrast of this place. And as a reporter here, I'm always struggling on how to write the story, because I don't want Ivory Coast to come across as yet another, you know, coup-ridden and troubled African nation that is mired in poverty. The Ivory Coast and Abidjan in particular used to be called the Paris of Africa. It's the only country in the region that has real skyscrapers, that, you know, soar up out of the ground. It's got four-lane highways like you might see in Europe. And that's the tragedy here, that this happened here.

MARTIN: Well, finally, Rukmini - and thank you for this, and thank you for your reporting. You indicated that there is an effort by the African Union to broker at least talks between the two sides. To this point, do we know whether there's any progress there?

Ms. CALLIMACHI: We don't know exactly what's going to come out of the meeting. Everybody is watching to see tomorrow. But there is a bit of cynicism, because there have been many high-level attempts to negotiate the crisis here. The people are expecting that if the AU falls in step and says what the rest of the world has said, that Gbagbo needs to leave, that most likely it will - that Gbagbo will not listen to that, and then where are we?

MARTIN: Rukmini Callimachi is the West Africa correspondent for the Associated Press. She was recently recognized for her work documenting evidence of mass killings there in the Ivory Coast as a part of the political dispute there. She joined us on the phone from Ivory Coast's largest city, Abidjan.

Rukmini, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. CALLIMACHI: Thank you, Michel.

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