The difficult task of healing old wounds and re-uniting a country has begun in Ivory Coast, and the western town of Duekoue is ground zero for that all-important objective.
Republican Army forces loyal to the government of President Alassane Ouattara have returned to the town that fell victim to its final military push toward the main city of Abidhan last month.
In Duekoue, the army's soldiers patrol the neighbourhoods of the war-ravaged town. Their mission is to ensure calm and to uncover hidden weapon caches.
“You might know that Duekoue was the base for Liberian mercenaries and pro-Gbagbo militias. We have found some of their weapons, but not enough. Not according to our estimations,” said Major Konda, who is overseeing operations in the region.
Army officials loyal to ousted president Laurent Gbagbo reportedly handed out large stockpiles of weapons indiscriminately to civilians in the final weeks of fighting.
Burying the dead
The hand-over of power in Duekoue from civilians to the Republican Army is full of challenges. Their return to the town comes as residents, with UN help, are still trying to identify and bury their dead.
Human rights groups have accused the forces loyal to President Alassane Ouattara of killing hundreds of people in Duekoue. UN troops report that they have buried 198 corpses over the past three days.
According to FRANCE 24’s journalists there is little doubt that civilians were summarily executed. Our correspondents on the ground filmed footage of dead elderly people, as well as a pastor who was apparently trying to surrender at the time of his death. The village chief is also among the missing.
Time to rebuild
Duekoue’s residents are being told that it is safe to go back to their burned-out town, but many wonder what they will return to.
Father Bertin, a Catholic priest, returned to find his church reduced to ashes and his home looted. “It’s not difficult to return, but once here, where do we stay, where do we sleep?” the 85-year-old priest asked.
Furthermore, the army’s presence serves as painful reminder of the war while it is still very raw. Residents have yet to finish mourning the dead or start the uphill task of rebuilding their devastated homes.
“It’s a major challenge,” admitted Sidiki Konate, a minister in Ouattara’s government. ““If we can restore peace here [Duekoue], we can bring peace to the rest of Ivory Coast.”