The United Nations relief chief sounded the alarm today about the humanitarian situation inside Côte d’Ivoire, saying emergency aid is needed now to help hundreds of thousands of civilians caught up in the deadly violence that has engulfed the West African country.
Valerie Amos, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, told journalists in New York that she had “just returned from a deeply troubling visit” to Côte d’Ivoire and neighbouring Liberia.
Ms. Amos said she saw evidence of “what must have been terrible violence” and spoke to numerous people who had either endured or witnessed atrocities as a result of fighting between forces supporting the former president Laurent Gbagbo, who has refused to step down, and those backing Alassane Ouattara, the UN-certified winner of last November’s presidential election.
The heaviest fighting is now focused on the commercial capital, Abidjan, where pro-Gbagbo forces are concentrated. The UN peacekeeping mission (UNOCI) is carrying out ground and air patrols to try to protect civilians and to respond to requests for assistance from journalists and foreign nationals.
UNOCI troops deployed to secure the Félix Houphouët-Boigny bridge in Abidjan were shelled from the lagoon side late yesterday and had to return fire.
“People are immensely traumatized,” Ms. Amos said. “They have witnessed terrible violence, and many have been directly targeted.”
Ms. Amos heard stories of women witnessing the execution of their husbands, of women and girls being abducted, and of children being forcibly separated from their parents.
“I spoke to women who had hidden in a swamp for three days, hiding from militias. I heard claims there are hundreds if not thousands of people still hiding in the forests. I also heard claims that militias are hunting people with dogs.”
The Under-Secretary-General stressed that there can be no impunity for the perpetrators of crimes against civilians.
“While we don’t yet know the full extent of the atrocities that have been carried out, they clearly add up to extremely serious human rights violations.”
Earlier this week prosecutors at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague said they may open investigations into the “widespread and systematic” killings in Côte d’Ivoire in recent weeks.
Ms. Amos noted that given the deep roots of the violence and discord in Côte d’Ivoire, “a sustained process of reconciliation is going to be needed” throughout the country.
But she said that the parties to the fighting must ensure that humanitarian aid can reach those in need.
“Humanitarian aid needs to be provided now – to alleviate the worst suffering; to provide protection for people; and to help reduce the tensions which will only escalate as food and other basic essentials run short.”
UN aid officials have estimated that up to 1 million Ivorians have been displaced by the violence, with some internally displaced and others forced to flee into neighbouring countries, particularly Liberia.
“Liberian authorities, UN agencies and our partner NGOs [non-governmental organizations] are doing their utmost to ensure that the response is adequate,” the Emergency Relief Coordinator said.
“But we still have a long way to go. With more money, we can deliver more food, provide shelter [and] offer better medical treatment to those who are sick, and much more.”
Ms. Amos said the UN would focus on ensuring that aid workers can gain access to those areas where populations require assistance.
“The important thing to remember here is it is ordinary people who are caught up in this violence. What they told me over and over again is they want a safe and stable Côte d’Ivoire, so they can go on with their lives.”
Meanwhile, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters today in Washington, D.C. that it was “absolutely necessary” for Mr. Gbagbo to step down and cede power to Mr. Ouattara.
“He has to mind – if he believes he was a leader of the Ivory Coast for some time – then he has to mind the well-being and safety and security and prosperity of his people, where he was once the president. This is his last opportunity to gracefully exit from this. I urge again that he do should do all [that] he can do, as an Ivory Coast citizen.”