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.
I had only met Soro and his family that morning, in Yamoussoukro, where I had spent a few days getting ready for my trip into rebel territory. It was November 2003, and the civil war in Ivory Coast was supposed to be over, thanks to a peace accord signed in France the previous January. A national unity government was in place, grouping the party that backed the president, Laurent Gbagbo, with the main civilian opposition parties, and also with the rebels, who called themselves the New Forces and controlled the northern half of the country. The war itself had been brief—just four months—but jarring, especially for a country that had hitherto experienced no armed conflict in its independent history. This had been a point of national pride, as much so as the wealth that Ivory Coast had amassed from four decades of abundant commodity exports. Ivory Coast was, and still is, the world’s largest cocoa producer, and a major player in coffee, cotton, pineapples, and rubber, all of which funded good roads and a steady electricity supply. By the 1990s, the commodity markets had faltered and the veneer of fast money had rubbed off, revealing debt, corruption, and unemployment. Still, the country had peace, unlike nearby Liberia and Sierra Leone, or farther-off Congo and Rwanda. Reports of wars and atrocities elsewhere comforted Ivorians in a placid kind of civic confidence, somewhat edged with smugness.
That was the Ivory Coast I had come to know in the course of two long stays in the early and mid-1990s. I was in graduate school then, and had come to research the history of the Ivory Coast electric utility, which had once been an African leader for its engineering prowess but had succumbed to poor management and then had been privatized amid some controversy. But I had taken my time doing this research, lulled by the country’s pleasant atmosphere. I had formed bonds with families in the metropolis Abidjan and their relatives in small towns upcountry. I had traveled widely, including along this same road, the trunk route that linked Abidjan to Yamoussoukro, the ceremonial capital (the place where the founding president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, had built his massive basilica modeled on St. Peter’s) and north to Bouaké, the second city, and Korhogo; only back then you got from place to place easily, by car or on comfortable air-conditioned buses; you could leave Abidjan at dawn and be just about anywhere by evening. The country didn’t feel wealthy, exactly—I had missed the champagne era by a decade—and its politics was uncertain: at the time of my first stay, in 1992, Houphouët was in his dotage, and factions were lining up for the succession battle. By the time I returned in 1994 he was dead, leaving the vacuum that ensues when a patriarch exits the scene. Yet the place still felt easy, and the national self-image, largely shared across the political spectrum, amplified this impression and made it that much more credible and seductive.
Now things were different. Ivory Coast had turned the wrong shade on world conflict maps; it was now a place of travel advisories, capital flight, and refugees—some even taking shelter in Liberia, to everyone’s shame. The tumble had been rapid and tawdry. First, political life had taken on a nasty ethnic edge, several parties stoking resentment against the large migrant populations, from the north and from neighboring countries, that had come to work the plantations in the cocoa-producing belt as well as run shops in the cities. Discrimination mounted against these migrants and their children, with people challenged as insufficiently Ivorian or denied services or documents on the basis of their last name. Then had come a coup, the country’s first—another event few believed possible—and after that more indignities: a general who promised not to run for president, then went back on his word, leading candidates barred from running by pliant courts, botched elections, and finally, the assumption of the presidency by Gbagbo, a university professor and longtime opposition leader who now seemed alarmingly in thrall to messianic Christianity. The accumulation of ill will altered not only the power games in Abidjan, but the country’s political geography, so that when a group of officers mutinied in September 2002 and moved towards Abidjan from the north, they were able to take control of half the country, largely if not unreservedly welcomed by the local population, before French and African leaders imposed a ceasefire. So now the Ivory Coast was split in two, rebels in the north and loyalists in the south, with foreign troops patrolling a buffer zone between. The belligerents pretended to cooperate in the national unity government, but in reality, they were digging in for the duration.
I had concerns about traveling in this atmosphere, but felt a strong urge to see my friends, who found themselves, by reason of employment or regional origin, scattered on both sides of the ceasefire line. In Abidjan, normal life had never really stopped, the war mostly taking the form of skirmishes between militias in working-class areas and police raids on migrant compounds and the homes of opposition activists. Commerce and social life carried on, but with a tinge of paranoia. The many French expatriates were on edge, Gbagbo’s camp having decided that France tacitly supported the rebels. A couple of weeks before my arrival, a longtime Africa reporter for French radio, Jean Hélène, had been killed in an altercation with a police sergeant. Meanwhile, rumors of rebel atrocities, happily stoked by the pro-Gbagbo press, swirled across the city, tales of rapes and summary executions, and some of my friends in Abidjan expressed alarm that I was considering the journey. But those with relatives in the north told a different story: there had been violence on both sides, they said, but it had largely subsided—at least enough to permit travel and trade between the two zones, which, soldiers in both camps were realizing as the country’s partition took hold, was worth encouraging because it meant that many more opportunities to levy fees and collect bribes. So people were moving around again, at least a little, and even though the buses weren’t traveling any further than Yamoussoukro, you could still get to other places, as long as you were willing to décomposer your journey into segments. Some kind of transport was available everywhere.
This was good enough for Soro. He lived in Korhogo, the main city of the far north, and had been waiting for things to steady to the point where he felt comfortable bringing home from Abidjan his wife and their two-year-old daughter, Dominique. Korhogo was my destination as well: my friend Martial was expecting me there. Martial was a doctor posted to a small town nearby, where he supervised a network of village dispensaries and itinerant nurses on motorbikes, performing minor surgeries himself and referring serious cases to the regional hospital in Korhogo. When the war broke out, most civil servants including doctors and teachers had fled to the loyalist zone, but a few stayed behind, and Martial was one of them. He now spent most of his time in the city, part of an ad hoc team trying to maintain some minimal level of health services for the region. Korhogo registered in the guide books: it was the heart of Senoufo country, famous for masks and mud cloth and secret initiation rites. It was a major trading town where local sugar and cotton were loaded for export. And it was the rebels’ rear base; their headquarters was near the front line, in Bouaké, but in Korhogo they were far from the front and, for many, in their home region, and consequently at ease. Being a doctor, and better yet, one who had chosen to stay, Martial commanded a level of respect and personal safety. He was eager for a visit, and to show me his world. The main issue was getting there, and when Martial found out Soro’s plans, he arranged for us to make the journey together.
In Yamoussoukro we hired a town taxi, white with a green and red stripe down the side, paying the extra fare so the driver would not wait for a fourth adult passenger, and took it to Tiébissou, an hour away. We crossed the last loyalist checkpoint there, on foot and without incident. On the other side were a few bush taxis, the usual scuffed Peugeot 504s, offering transport into the buffer zone. We struck a deal with one driver, but hit a snag: we were bound for the first rebel checkpoint, in a village called Djébonoua, where Soro’s connections had promised us an escort for the diciest part of the journey, but the driver refused to go there. The Djébonoua rebels, he explained, normally charged five thousand francs—a substantial amount, about ten dollars—per car each day, logging payments against license plate numbers in a ledger, but recently had become greedy, and now often demanded a new payment each time. The driver insisted on a side route through the bush where the rebels were more lenient. He agreed to take us this way to a spot within walking distance of the main checkpoint.
The road through the buffer zone was empty. In normal times this was the main artery that linked the principal cities of Ivory Coast with each other and with the landlocked countries that depended on the Abidjan port for trade. Local traffic would share the road with trucks laden with cotton, livestock and fuel, and lurching passenger buses carrying migrant workers from Burkina Faso and Niger. Now there was only us, on a road far more rutted than I remembered from past visits, the fertile overgrowth giving way to a more open landscape as we eased into the Sahel. Near an anonymous village we slowed to a crawl and a young dark-skinned man in sharp fatigues with a patch bearing the flag of Senegal came out of a guard post and peered into our car, then waved us through without a word. A little further, I saw a French armored vehicle parked a bit off the road, seemingly unattended. The road ribboned on until the driver abruptly pulled to the side and edged the Peugeot onto a narrow dirt track that ran westward into a wooded area, then north again. The car shuddered across prodigious bumps and eventually paused at a place in the woods where two men in grimy trousers and t-shirts, one wearing a peaked peasant hat, sat on a low bench holding hunting rifles. We got out, identification papers in hand, Soro’s wife carrying the child, and the men rose to greet us. One scrutinized Soro’s papers, then nodded. Cent francs-cent francs, he said; one hundred francs—about twenty cents—each. The rebel made a show of inspecting my passport; I wondered if he was able to read. C’est un ami, Soro said. Un américain. The politics of the Ivorian crisis made it prudent to emphasize my nationality whenever dealing with anyone armed—mostly to make clear that I was not French. The rebel took in this information and for a moment we held each other’s gaze. Then he broke into a smile. Pour vous c’est gratuit, he said. Bienvenue chez nous.
The bush taxi left us near the main road and turned back into the woods. We walked out and saw a shimmer of activity in the distance—the Djébonoua checkpoint, perhaps a kilometer away—and Soro set off that in that direction. He took a long time to return. His wife and I stood by the side of the empty road and took turns holding Dominique. It was early afternoon and the heat was intense; I felt parched and exposed. When Soro came back, it was on board a Mitsubishi 4×4 driven by an animated rebel soldier who introduced himself as a lieutenant. We piled in with our bags and departed at speed. It was only twenty kilometers to Bouaké but this was the front line, where the rebels most feared an attack, and a dozen roadblocks or more separated us from the city. Some involved large metal gates drawn across the roadway and tree trunks laid down to slow traffic on either side. Here the rebels carried assault rifles; vans and civilian cars were parked while their occupants showed bona fides, and I noticed masks and fétiches hanging on the gates or clustered around tree stumps near the road. I saw dozos as well—traditional hunters from the far north, recognizable by their leather outfits and their hats, rifles, and amulet pouches. The dozo fraternities had aligned with the rebels early in the conflict; their members could reputedly turn invisible and perform other supernatural feats, and their presence at the front added an element at once rustic and mystical. These checkpoints were serious, the lieutenant told us—he was offering a kind of haphazard sociology as he drove—and required that we stop and take time to identify ourselves and chat with the soldiers. But other checkpoints were less imposing, and there the lieutenant would merely slow, honk, and hang his head out the window in the direction of the soldiers on duty shouting mon petit! mon petit! as they scurried to clear the way. They all know me, he explained.
Bouaké, the country’s second city, had experienced combat, expropriations, and refugees on the move just months earlier, yet now felt alive with commerce and traffic. At the outdoor transport terminal vans and bush taxis were boarding for towns across the north: Séguéla, Odienné, Dabakala, Ferkéssédougou, Bouna. The lieutenant apologized—had he known we were traveling all the way to Korhogo, he said, he would have arranged to take us; unfortunately, he now had orders to return to the front. We traded the comfort of his command vehicle for the cramped Hiace, no longer blowing past roadblocks but instead stopping every ten or fifteen minutes, the apprentice jumping out to pay the rebels or whatever local militia had appeared. By the time we got to Niakara, the late hour and exhaustion from our stuttering progress lent the scene there a kind of hallucinatory quality, as if it no longer mattered whether the roads were open or not, and whether we reached any particular destination.
A vehicle rolled in from the north side of town and a soldier stepped out with new information. By order of some higher-ranking authority, the road to Korhogo was now clear after all. Our van—the last one heading that way—was free to depart. The driver and apprentice were located, the Dioula ladies were woken, and we scrambled to board before the rebels changed their mind. Just as the driver revved the engine, a rebel appeared and planted himself in front of the van, waving a pistol. He was the youngest we’d seen, a boy of maybe fifteen, with bloodshot eyes. Un drogué, someone muttered. The spokesmen in the front seat were livid. They jumped out and began to berate him, then others piled out to prevent a fight. Rebels looked on, allowing the situation to resolve itself. Someone finally handed over two thousand francs and the boy stepped aside; as we lurched out of Niakara, debate broke out in the van as to whether we had paid him too much. The road was smooth from there, and I began to see the narrow Senoufo huts silhouetted in the night as we rumbled past villages. On the edge of Korhogo soldiers again refused to let us enter the city until dawn. But we were on Soro’s terrain now. He asked which chief the rebels reported to, made a call, and handed his phone to the soldier at the checkpoint. With a oui, chef, the rebel raised the barrier, and we drove into town.
The van dropped me at a corner where Martial was waiting. It was two in the morning. We walked the short distance down unpaved streets to the house he shared with his brother Sylvestre, an agricultural scientist. It was a standard single-story structure on a small gated plot, with a couple of bedrooms. It felt comfortable and I was ready to sleep, but Martial had a different plan. “We have to go out for drinks,” he said.
The bar was called the Parc des Princes. It was a maquis—the all-purpose Ivorian term for an outdoor drinking spot with either its own food or vendors nearby grilling fish, meat, or plantains. This one was named after the stadium in Paris where the Paris-St. Germain soccer team plays. Football was always a good source for maquis names. So were current events, and the war had spawned a fresh idiom that bar owners were mining with a sly sense of humor. Later in Korhogo I would come across Le Marcoussis, named for the Paris suburb where the peace deal had been worked out. And in Abidjan the particular vocabulary of the ceasefire arrangement had produced sublime maquis names like La Zone Tampon—the buffer zone—and La Zone de Confiance. As for this maquis, it was a large one: a sprawling courtyard edged by a low concrete wall and decked with the usual folding wood armchairs and low tables with plastic spreads. I noticed the music: it was “On est fatigué,” a hit song that I had heard over and over in Abidjan in the previous weeks. It was a wartime song; it lauded the achievements of the loyalist government and berated the “assailants” for messing things up, possibly aided by occult forces, just when prosperity was beckoning:
En deux ans seulement
Les paysans vont en boîte
L’école est devenue cadeau
Cacao a marché
La troisième année
On devait prendre pour percer
Vous avez pris pour faire palabre
Si c’est pas sorcellerie…
Assaillants o, assaillants o, assaillants o
On est fatigué.
Looking around the Parc des Princes, it was clear that these “assailants” made up most of the clientele. A cluster of teenaged rebels stood just outside the entrance, waiting for their superiors’ drinking session to conclude. Inside, men in fatigues and others in black t-shirts with unit or militia logos sat around tables covered with tall 66-centiliter bottles of beer, many empty and many more awaiting consumption. One table in particular radiated an air of importance, and as soon as we settled in and ordered our drinks, Martial’s friend Bamba, who was the local Red Cross nurse and had joined us, went over to find out which rebel chief was holding court; it was important to know who was around, he explained, and to pay respects.
He came back half-frowning. “We have a problem,” he said. “I told the chief that we have a visitor from America and he got so excited that he insists on buying us a whole case.” The only way to decline this offer was to go thank the chief and plead for mercy, invoking the late hour and my long journey. Inevitably, we ended up joining the table. It was a loud group, and they had been drinking for some time; after the round-the-table courtesies, I locked in on the man to my left, in part to maintain my focus, and also to hear his story. Like many of the rebels, he was an Ivorian army soldier who had joined the mutiny that sparked the conflict. The war had been short in most places, and mostly free of the worst horrors, but in the far west the fighting had been bloodier and lasted longer; mercenaries from Liberia had joined in, and local militias had taken the opportunity to settle ethnic grievances and land disputes, perpetrating atrocities. A decisive showdown had occurred in the city of Man, a regional capital surrounded by mountains, which the rebels had overrun, then lost, and finally recaptured.
My drinking partner had fought in this battle, he said, and had taken a bullet—he lifted his shirt to show me the scar on his flank—as well as helped defend the city against loyalist air attacks. This involved a World War II-vintage anti-aircraft gun that he had become proficient at operating. A foot-pedal mechanism activated the trigger, and as a result the gun—and by extension, its operator—became known as Petit Vélo. “That’s what they call me now,” he said. I heard a few more of his stories, and when the song about assailants came back on the sound system, I asked Petit Vélo what he made of it. “Oh, that,” he said. “It’s a great song, isn’t it? As far as we’re concerned, the real assailants are the other side.”
If Petit Vélo was curious why I had come to Korhogo, he did not show it. In fact, in the ten days I stayed in the city not one of the many rebels I came across inquired, let alone challenged my presence. This felt reassuring up to a point, but unnerving as well—shouldn’t they care? After a few days, though, I realized that Korhogo was for them a comfortable rear base, where they had little fear of attack or espionage, and were mostly concerned with their movement’s internal power dynamics. This attitude rendered their presence subtle, like a filigree, and daily life in the town had taken on certain rhythms accordingly. The residents who were least comfortable with the situation had long since fled; those who remained had adapted. You kept away from gunfire, avoided soldiers when they were drunk or quarreling, and you tried to stay up on the basics of the rebel organization and on news of purges or infighting. Early in my stay we watched a patrol car as it crawled down our street—it was just an ordinary sedan, but marked with a large logo that read “110,” and Martial advised me to give that particular faction a wide berth, and treat them with extra deference if questioned. The 110s were the personal militia of Martin Kouakou Fofié, the zone commander for Korhogo and hence the top rebel chief in the region. The United Nations suspected Chef Fofié of grave human rights violations, which added weight to Martial’s warning. Other units carried names like the Leopards or Jaguars, and their members wore coordinated black t-shirts or caps. Residents knew to address any rebel above some fluid-but-generally-sensed hierarchical level as “Chef;” some of these chiefs went by their first name—we had a courteous conversation with a Chef Elie coming out of a restaurant one day—and others by often American-inspired noms de guerre: a certain Chef Adams got mentioned a lot, though I never ran into him, and I learned later that he was killed in some kind of power struggle not long after I left the city.
Mostly, though, the rebels blended in, and in Korhogo at least, where many had ethnic and family ties, they generally paid for their drinks and seemed interested in preserving the peace. Many of the subordinates were teenagers who clearly lacked military training, but the chiefs were army officers who kept the youths, as far as I could see, away from potential trouble; indeed it seemed that much of what the young rebels did all day, this far away from the front, was sit around and wait for their chief to finish socializing in one place and proceed to the next.
With the fragile peace had come the resumption of business, and the rebels had commandeered trade with neighboring countries, calibrating the bribes and levies at exactly the highest level that merchants and transporters would tolerate. From the cluster of roadside maquis at a major intersection in the center of town you could watch the steady traffic of trucks laden with cotton bales or timber from the western region, heading for Burkina Faso and Mali. Despite the noise and fumes we spent a great deal of time at this corner during my stay, mostly because the vendors there prepared a poulet braisé that was more savory and substantially cheaper than any I’d had in Abidjan, and also because it served as a kind of agora where news got exchanged. Bamba would park his Peugeot ambulance and join us for a drink while he waited for something to happen. One evening a Jeep raced through the intersection and came to a stop with a terrible squeal, followed by a commotion. Bamba dashed across and came back with a report that the rebels had hit a young girl who was crossing the street. The rebels had tried to flee the scene but an indignant crowd encircled them, and they agreed to take the girl to the hospital; Bamba followed to make sure that she got there.
I spent several days helping Martial and his colleagues come up with a plan to bolster the failing public health system in Korhogo and its region. A Cameroonian doctor with UNICEF had visited to assess conditions, and challenged the few medical professionals he found still working in Korhogo to write a proposal for emergency funding. Martial, Bamba, and a few others had taken on this project, but their ideas were vague and none of them was in the habit of this type of exercise. My own plan had been to retrieve Martial in Korhogo and travel with him after a few days to his hometown Katiola, also in the rebel zone, and then back to Abidjan, where his fiancée was awaiting his visit. We would accomplish this eventually, but for a moment, between the long drinking sessions and the matter of this grant, it seemed we might be stuck here for a while, and I realized I ought to help move things along.
We located an old 386 computer that we borrowed from a local NGO, and I became the facilitator and stenographer of our little workshop. A map of the region was produced, and we listed the resources that we knew were in place in each town, and how many nurses and community health aides were still on the scene. Drugs were a big problem; normal supplies had been interrupted and the clinics relied on whatever the aid agencies chose to give them; getting these out of Korhogo and into the villages was even more of a challenge. One member of our group was the Korhogo hospital pharmacist; he drifted in and out of the meetings, and at one point Martial explained to me that the pharmacist was rationing the drugs and charging doctors and patients in exchange for releasing supplies. Martial disapproved, but he also said it was unlikely that the pharmacist had received his salary in months; public employees who stayed in the north were ostensibly still getting paid, but only if they showed up in Abidjan to collect in person.
As we continued our inventory it grew clear that the crisis, while obviously grave, had exacerbated the poor conditions that these men worked under in the first place, especially here in the north, far from Abidjan and its relatively modern facilities. Martial himself was only here because of corruption: he had scored high in the placement exam, which should have ensured him a desirable assignment in Abidjan, but those spots had gone instead to lower-placed finishers who paid for their posting. One day we drove the ninety minutes from Korhogo to Guiembé, the tiny town where Martial had landed instead, so he could check on his clinic and catch up with the medical assistant he had left in charge. I spent several hours on the clinic patio watching and thinking while dozens of people of all ages, some with visible symptoms like goiters, limps, and poorly healed wounds, some pregnant, some weak and leaning on young relatives to move around, sat in long rows of plastic chairs waiting for a summary consultation. Often there was little Martial could do other than hand out malaria treatment pills and, in the most urgent cases, arrange transport to the Korhogo hospital—often by motorbike—though it was not clear what could be done there either. No matter what assistance our emergency plan might garner, it would do little for these village patients. Besides, Martial revealed at some point—by this time, we had completed our draft and he and I were preparing to leave town—no one knew whether the Cameroonian doctor really planned to come back. I never had the heart to find out, later, whether our work had borne any results at all.
A restaurant on a main street near Martial’s house drew my notice. It was not a maquis but a house with a few outdoor tables and, by the gate, a chalkboard announcing the day’s specials, which were of the French bistro variety, like pâté de campagne. This seemed incongruous for a number of reasons, and when I asked Martial about the place, he said he had never been inside; the prices were higher than at the maquis, and moreover the proprietor was French and had something of a racist reputation. Still, Martial was curious as well, and one afternoon we walked in and took a table. Presently the owner came out, and sat with us for most of our meal—which was surprisingly good—and told us his story. His name was Maurice, and he had come to this region in the 1970s to work in the sugar industry that was prosperous in those days. But his boss was an American who could not handle the local food, and Maurice had kitchen skills and became the man’s personal chef, and when the sugar company collapsed Maurice decided to stay and open a restaurant. He had done well for some time—being a regional capital with local notables and civil servants, Korhogo had seen some benefit from the boom times, producing a restaurant clientele—and, he told us, he had fathered a number of children, so that by now this was the only home he knew. When the war broke out, France and the United States organized an airlift to evacuate their citizens from the rebel zone, and the French came to take Maurice to the airport in Bouaké. He refused, but they forced him to go, and so, Maurice said, he found himself in a provincial city in France, borrowing money from his ninety year-old mother as he had none of his own. It was winter, dreary and gray, and Maurice knew he had to come back. He flew to Burkina Faso, talked his way across the border, and returned to his restaurant. Business was virtually nil, Maurice told me, but it had been poor to begin with. Besides, he had nothing else to do.
Maneuvers were afoot; suspended between war and peace, the country had slipped into a layered shadow game, all patience and positioning. It was a state that would last another seven years, each political transition plan foundering on some minutia and a new one getting negotiated in its place, elections repeatedly postponed, and although no one knew at the time just how long this would go on, the onset of the status quo was palpable. Parties walked out of the national unity government to protest real or invented slights, and heads of state from neighboring countries shuttled in to broker new compromises. Human rights observers assembled files on arbitrary detentions, beatings, and expropriations, and the United Nations drew up lists of offenders and assets to freeze. Militiamen turned soldiers of fortune, hardened from far worse civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, wandered the west of the country in search of action, while mercenaries from Angola, Belarus, and Ukraine, hired by the loyalist side, cooled their heels in Abidjan mid-level hotels. The president’s inner circle tightened its hold on the country’s main exports, cocoa and coffee and fuel from the refinery, and siphoned large sums into secret funds, while the rebels moved cotton and precious metals out through the north. The economy was failing, but the country was fertile and food was abundant, and if you were far enough from the front, and even not so far, you began to tune into a kind of normality. In Korhogo, this presented as torpor, and a sense that whatever was going on could simply keep drifting, if not forever, at least for a while. The eminent families of the old Senoufo bourgeoisie lowered their profile, waiting things out behind the walls of their villas. Merchants adjusted their bulk purchases to the new trade and smuggling circuits. For the poor and villagers in the hinterland, the drug-less clinics and shuttered schools worsened prior conditions only by degree.
There was a maquis in Korhogo where we had lunch most days during my stay. The setting was pleasant—a clean open area under a high thatched roof, with vegetation all around, and a lovely proprietress named Sali—and the food especially tasty. It was a kind of oasis for whatever professional class was still present in the city, and we rarely saw any rebels come by; a few foreign aid workers ate here too, though we never spoke with them. It was a cool spot where the temptation was great to order extra beers and make an afternoon of it. Several days in a row, we saw a young boy of no more than twelve eating by himself at one of the dark wood tables, ordering stew and rice and a soft drink and paying his bill with the waitress after his meal. We kept an eye on this boy from across the maquis and traded speculation with the staff as to what he was doing there. Someone had heard that he was a child soldier, possibly Liberian; he might have been an orphan set adrift by the conflict, but he seemed to have money, or at least enough to get by. He spoke with no one, made no eye contact, just arrived and ate and paid, and finally someone from our group broke whatever was inhibiting us and called him over to speak with us at our table. He listened to our questions politely but he told us nothing of his origins or story. His French was halting; he claimed to know many other languages, including Portuguese and Chinese, but when we asked him to demonstrate, he produced gibberish. He kept his eyes down and his voice nearly a whisper. He obviously did not care for our company, and after a while we gave up and let him return to his table. We decided we would approach him the next day, and find out if there was some way we could help him, but we never saw him again.