An Uncertain Return

by Austin Merrill

©Austin MerrillIt was late morning when we got to the border post, a wooden shack on a dirt road in the westernmost reaches of Ivory Coast. A gendarme named Francois was guarding the checkpoint with two other men. The border with Liberia — a stream with a steel truss bridge built over it — lay a bit further down the hill.

“Ah, American!” Francois said with a lazy smile as he glanced at my passport. An old plastic water bottle sat on the table, half-full. A shot glass was next to it. “You know Lil Wayne?” 

I told him that I’d come to the border because a convoy of Ivorian refugees was scheduled to arrive from a camp in Liberia. It was mid-March, the beginning of what would be several months of monitoring the flow of refugees returning home and gauging Ivory Coast's ability to transition from conflict to peace. Fancois shrugged and offered me a drink of ganagana, a local moonshine made from sugar cane. The sun emerged from behind a cloud and I heard the shack’s tin roof groan as it expanded in the heat. Someone ran off to find lemons.

Francois was tall and doughy and wore a black knit stocking cap pulled low over his ears and eyebrows. “50 CENT” was stitched across the bottom edge of it. He had unbuttoned the shirt of his blue combat fatigues, which flapped open as he slouched on a bench. In his right hand was a wad of tissues that he used to wipe his sweaty face. 

Unrest in Ivory Coast, which began more than ten years ago, reached its peak in early 2011, when civil war re-ignited after Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent president, refused to step down after losing elections to Alassane Ouattara, his long-time nemesis. The fighting was concentrated mostly in western Ivory Coast and chased more than 100,000 people into Liberia. Now, after a year or more of living on rations far from home, the refugees are slowly trickling back.

“The war is over,” Francois said, propping his Kalashnikov in the corner with a cluster of others. “Look, we’re here together now, an ethnic mix from all over the country.” He introduced me to the two other guards — a police officer from Gbagbo’s hometown, in the southwest, and a soldier from the former rebel army, based in the north. Francois was from the east, near Ghana.

It was a remarkable show of unity for a place that had spent most of the past decade trying to tear itself apart. Reminders of the conflict were everywhere. On the four-hour drive to the border that morning we’d passed a pickup full of guys with guns, the back of the truck packed with men holding assault rifles and one shouldering a rocket propelled grenade launcher. We’d seen schools and government buildings flattened from combat. Even villages simply succumbing to the elements had a sinister look—earthen huts with crumbling walls, the bamboo frames showing through the mud like the bones of a rotting corpse.

Troops loyal to Ouattara arrested Gbagbo in April 2011 after four months of bloodshed. The ousted president is now in The Hague and will be the first former head of state to be tried by the International Criminal Court. Gbagbo retains broad support across the southern half of the country, and so his trial is certain to keep tensions high in Ivory Coast as it unfolds over the next few years. A key to the country’s stability will be the degree to which the Ivorian refugees in Liberia are able to return to their homes and reintegrate peacefully into society. Almost all of the refugees are ardent Gbagbo supporters who fled when Ouattara took power.

A soldier arrived with the lemons. They were very small. He sliced one open with a machete, squeezed some juice into the shot glass, and filled the rest with liquor. Francois drank first and handed the glass to me. The others nodded. “Very good,” one of them said. “Feel it going down? Makes you strong!”

Francois and I walked down to the bridge. “You know, I was in Abidjan during the last of the fighting, when it got bad,” he said. “I was based on the edge of town, near Yopougon. But we just took off, left our posts. The writing was on the wall. It wasn’t worth losing your life.”

He had taken my hand in his as we walked. His palm was so soft that I bent my head down to look at it. “It’s all over now, but these Liberian bandits want to screw everything up,” he said. “They come over the border, attack a village, then flee back home. We caught 60 of them recently, but they keep coming. It’s okay, we’ll get them.”

A United Nations official had told me of just such an attack that occurred in February about a hundred miles further south. In June, seven UN peacekeepers and eight civilians were killed in a larger attack in the same area. Francois was right—Liberians were involved in these outbreaks of violence. But Ivorians have played a major role as well. Many of the Ivorian refugees in eastern Liberia are former fighters in Gbagbo’s youth militia, and their gun-slinging ways live on. (Since June the violence has escalated and spread. In July a displaced-persons camp in Duekoue, in the west, was attacked and burned down, killing seven and forcing 5,000 people to flee. In August there were several clashes in and around Abidjan, adding to the death toll and further jeopardizing Ivory Coast’s stability.)

Francois and I parted ways after a while, and the convoy arrived, at last, near dusk. It came rumbling across the border in a line of a dozen humanitarian trucks, their flatbeds shrouded in tarps. Men, women, and children peeked through the back flaps and were covered in dust. It was like a postmodern version of a covered wagon train from the old American West. The children’s faces displayed little emotion, but the adults had set their jaws in a stern and defiant tone. 

That night, at a processing center in the nearest town, a 61 year-old cocoa farmer named Guy Felix trembled with anger as he spoke to me. “They were killing us!” he said, explaining why he had fled to Liberia during the war. His face was full of gray stubble and his eyes were hard slits. “My house was burned and my wife’s house too. Now I’m going home and I don’t know where I’ll even sit.”

Felix was one of 309 refugees on the trip. I met a couple dozen of them, and every single one shared his apprehension and anger. More than 50,000 remain in Liberia.  

Earlier in the day back at the border, up the hill from Francois and the men at the checkpoint, I’d met a man who seemed, in retrospect, a kind of oracle for Ivory Coast’s tough road ahead. He was drunk on palm wine and stumbled around, stinking, in filthy denim shorts. “You think this is a happy story, these refugees?” he said loudly and to no one in particular. “And what about those coming home to burned out houses? Coming home to total destruction? Like me?”

I sat among a group of others, each of us carefully placed in our own patch of shade as we awaited the convoy. The man looked around at us and turned to wander off. “I have nothing left,” he said as he walked away. “They destroyed it all. That’s why I drink all the time. So I can escape everything that happened.”

 

 

A young man alongside a convoy of refugee trucks in Toulepleu, Ivory Coast.

 

Waiting for water at the Nahibly displaced persons camp in Duekoue, Ivory Coast.  

 

An Ivorian woman on her way home after spending a year in a refugee camp in Liberia.

Austin Merrill is an editor at Vanity Fair and a former West Africa correspondent for the Associated Press, based in Ivory Coast. The images are part of Everyday Africa, a new photography project by Austin Merrill and Peter DiCampo, exhibiting at the VII Gallery in Brooklyn from September 24 to October 18. This story was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.