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Wednesday, March 12, 2014
- Twelve-year-old Ahmed* pauses on his crutches in the narrow lane that leads from his house to the main road, glancing at the bullet holes still visible on the walls here in the Abobo Park 18 area of Abidjan. He sighs, then speeds up again to catch the bus that will take him downtown to the Adjamé quarter.
In the bag on his back, he carries soapy water, a brush, and a tin of polish, to clean and wax the shoes of his clients. “My parents gave me these supplies three weeks ago. Along with my new friends, I go out to work each day with a smile. Sometimes, I come back with enough money, but often with only a little.”
In March 2011, during Côte d’Ivoire’s post-electoral crisis, Ahmed was forced to carry ammunition for fighters in his home neighbourhood. He was drawn into the midst of a violent clash between insurgents and pro-government forces. The West African nation was shaken by six months of violence and terror when former President Laurent Gbagbo refused to cede power to Alassane Ouattara who won the November 2010 presidential elections. Thousands of people suffered rape, torture and other violence as a result.
“The sound of weapons was deafening. I threw myself down and cried,” he told IPS. “Then I was hit on my left leg, which later had to be amputated.”
Ahmed has since dropped out of school, and he’s starting to get used to his new life, working as a shoeshine boy far from home, said his father, Youssouf Traoré. “After he was hurt, my son spent every day moody and isolated. I felt that after going through such drama, something was not right… We needed to find him something to do, something that would give him hope again,” he told IPS.
At Abidjan’s Marcory market, where women come to have their hair plaited, Solange* helps her older sister create the elaborate, time-consuming braids of her clients. The 15-year-old was gang raped during the crisis, at Yopougon, another part of the city. Still traumatised, she no longer attends school.
“I didn’t want to be laughed at by my classmates every time I approached. So I spend my time here, with my sister. The work she gives me is rebuilding my spirits,” she told IPS. “Most importantly, it keeps me from thinking about what I’ve been through.”
Solange has not had any counselling or other psychosocial support, according to her sister.
Fabrice*, 10, and Adjaratou*, 13, are more fortunate. They too were in Yopougon during the crisis, and have suffered from mental health problems brought on by the incessant firing of heavy weapons. But for the past six weeks, they have been looked after by a non-governmental organisation called Enfance et Développement (Childhood and Development), based in Abidjan.
Like many of their peers, they have taken up a trade. Fabrice has dropped out of school to work as a cobbler, and Adjaratou – who has never gone to school – sells drinking water on the street in small bags.
“With this job,” Fabrice said, “my life’s changed. I was so absent-minded, but I’ve learned to do the best I can in whatever I do, without ever talking about war or weapons…”
These four children are just a few of the many young victims of the post-election crisis that gripped Côte d’Ivoire from December 2010 to April 2011.
Between November 2010 and September 2011, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the NGO Save the Children recorded 1,121 cases of grave violations committed against women or children during the crisis.
This total – representing only a fraction of the real number – includes 643 children, among them 182 survivors of rape, 19 who were pressed into service by one or another armed group, 13 deaths and 56 who were seriously injured.
“Most of these crimes have gone unpunished, because only 52 cases are presently the subject of legal proceedings – despite more than half the victims knowing the perpetrators,” said UNICEF. Of the cases before the courts, 27 involve rape and 25 other kinds of sexual attacks.
Two thirds of the children covered by the joint survey have received no support of any kind. One in four of these victims has benefited from medical assistance. And of the rape victims, only 44 percent have seen a doctor, while 39 percent have not had any medical care.
“Through recreational activities, just helping them to have fun, we have reduced the trauma these children are suffering,” said Josiane Niamké, president of Enfance et Développement. “And we have encouraged their parents to keep them busy, to help heal their pain.”
Francis Gnaly, an Abidjan psychiatrist, said that children must always be listened to and supported, as well as provided outlets for distraction. But “This is unfortunately not happening,” he said.
The psychiatrist said that engaging children affected by the conflict in various activities is an excellent means to repair their damaged psyches.
“There are victims who have been quick to get compensation or care to heal their wounds,” he said. But there are many others who are still waiting for psychological assistance to avoid mental health issues or depression.”
*(Names have been changed to protect privacy.)