Exclusive: Duekoue's grim war of numbers
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Reporting from Duekoue, a FRANCE 24 team finds the western Ivorian town in mourning weeks after a massacre with officials disputing death tolls. (Warning: Some of the images may be disturbing).
More than a week after Ivorian strongman Laurent Gbagbo was arrested, Ivory Coast is grappling with a humanitarian crisis as it confronts the brutality and excesses of a bloody four-month-long post-election crisis.
International human rights groups have accused forces loyal to President Alassane Ouattara of killing hundreds of people in the western Ivorian town of Duekoue as they made a final push from their northern bases to the main city of Abidjan last month.
FRANCE 24’s team of reporters visited Duekoue earlier this week to find a town in mourning as UN peacekeepers and Red Cross workers were helping bury the dead in the Carrefour neighbourhood of Duekoue.
Backing up the numbers
Weeks after the massacre, death toll estimates vary, the Red Cross initially stating that at least 800 people, including civilians, were killed in Duekoue during the last week of March. Ivorian government officials however put the death toll across the entire western region – traditionally considered a Gbagbo stronghold – at around 330.
UN peacekeepers engaged in the disturbing work of burying people in the Carrefour neighbourhood refused to be dragged into the death toll dispute.
“Regarding the figure of 800 dead, I can't comment,” Colonel Major Zeidane, from the UN peacekeeping force in Ivory Coast, told FRANCE 24. “The people who announced that number are the ones who should back it up.”
But UN troops in Duekoue do have figures of how many people they have helped bury so far: a total of 198 corpses, picked up over three days.
‘That man there was killed right in front of me’
Across the dusty town, the FRANCE 24 team found bodies still waiting to be collected.
There’s little doubt that civilians were summarily executed. FRANCE 24 found corpses of old men as well as a pastor who was apparently trying to surrender at the time of his death.
“That man there was killed right in front of me,” said a witness, who declined to be named, clicking through images on a computer screen. “I think he'd had an operation and just stepped out of the hospital to find some food. He was killed in front of me.”
Other witnesses told FRANCE 24 that armed men who swept through the region last month were checking identity cards in an apparent attempt to check ethnic origins.
“There were identity cards scattered on the ground near the Guémon Bridge,” explained Gaetan Mootoo, a researcher at Amnesty International. “You have to ask where those cards came from? Why were people who were looking for a place of safety ordered to prove their identity?”
There are several investigations into the massacre currently underway. Finding the culprits, discerning their motives and bringing them to justice are the critical challenges confronting the new Ivorian administration. Then comes the difficult task of healing old wounds and uniting a divided country.