Note: This is the text of my essay in Transition magazine, issue 108, out in June 2012. The full text is posted for a limited time here, prior to the issue’s release.
Last Van to Korhogo
Suspended between war and peace in Ivory Coast
The filling station was no longer a filling station. The pumps had been removed, but the plaza remained, and so did the fluorescent lights, which now bathed in their tepid glow a low-slung cement building and, to either side, a clutch of white-sided vans parked tidily in a row, some with passengers sleeping on board. It wasn’t clear where one might go to get fuel, but the larger question was whether we could leave at all. At the checkpoint at the entrance of town, the rebel soldiers told us the roads were closed for the night, and that our van should park with the others and proceed at first light. Because of the innumerable checkpoints it had taken five hours instead of the usual three to get from Bouaké to this place, Niakara, where the road to Korhogo branched off from the main highway that ran north toward Mali. Now traffic was stopped and travelers milled about near the old filling station or wandered off toward some dim lights across the road in search of a cigarette or something to eat. The three Dioula ladies who had offered nonstop commentary and complaints all ride long from the rear bench of our van no longer seemed perturbed. They were merchants, bringing back goods from the government zone—much of the cargo roped to the van’s roof was theirs, and our departure from Bouaké had been delayed by a debate over how much weight the vehicle could handle—and they were accustomed to the inconvenience. They spread textile wraps onto an area of concrete next to the building and went directly to sleep.
Others were not so sanguine. The two men who’d sat near the front of the van and appointed themselves our spokesmen, gauging the seriousness of the rebels who boarded at checkpoints and how much to argue with their demands for bribes, now bristled at staying the night in this acrid place, with Korhogo, if the road was clear, only two hours away. While the driver and his apprentice—the teenager in charge of loading cargo and collecting fares—slunk off to get food, these two passengers yelled at the impassive young men in mismatched fatigues who sat in the plaza cradling old rifles. Then, having obtained no response, they strode off down the road toward the main checkpoint to figure out who was in charge. Soro and I listened but hung back. We were traveling with his wife and small daughter, whom he had just retrieved in Abidjan after a year’s separation due to the war, and I was clearly a foreigner. It was prudent not to cause a scene. We drifted to the small, dank shop across the plaza and purchased lukewarm Cokes from the shopkeeper, an elderly Mauritanian who assumed from my features that I belonged to the local Lebanese community and addressed me in Arabic. I apologized—désolé, tonton, je suis américain—and watched the old man struggle to make sense of this. The war had shut off what thin trickle of foreign tourists once passed through here, leaving only relief workers, who traveled together in white Land Cruisers, not alone in the middle of the night on board an overcrowded eighteen-seat Hiace.