Following the attack from Liberian soil to Ivory Coast that resulted in the deaths of seven peacekeepers from Niger working under the United Nations flag as well as a number of Ivorian civilians and military an update is in order. While my previous post explained the general situation, the targeting of UN peacekeepers requires some further explanation.
I got the news about the attack immediately from my supervisor in Sweden, who had learned about it from the Swedish television on the morning after it had been executed. During the day I must have asked around 50 people about their reactions and thoughts concerning the incident. Not one was aware that it had even taken place. Only on the second day information had begun to trickle down to Zwedru, mainly from the Ivory Coast.
I cannot say that that any of the reactions to the attacks were particularly strong. Most Liberians seemed to care little, while some even cynically claimed that the United Nations probably paid some Liberians to attack their own forces in order to further some business interest. Most were simply uninterested, possibly because of the multitude of unverified rumors that float around all the time. Others, of course, knew that there was something on the make, but probably had no exact specifics concerning this particular attack.
Reactions from some Ivorian refugees were different, however. At this point it can be in order to state my own position concerning an attack on UN peacekeepers. As a former peacekeeper I cannot justify an attack against the UN in any way. This said, apart from justifying the act I do believe that we must understand why it happened.
The first refugee I told about the attack answered with a single word: “bon” – “good”. Puzzled, I demanded an explanation to his positive reaction to events I consider to be bad. According to him the UN collaborated with the current President Ouattara in removing President Gbagbo from power to the extent that “UN and Ouattara are one”. Attack on the UN can therefore be seen as a way of opposing the government of Ouattara, and from the perspective of a Gbagbo supporter therefore furthering their political goals.
It should be also noted that this refugee is not an inherently a bad person even if he supports killers of UN forces. After sensing my bafflement he proceeded to explain that his whole family, including small children, was killed during the Ivorian crisis by forces loyal to Ouattara. After such an experience any chance to get payback is more than understandable. At the same time, it does lead into a vicious circle of violence that can be difficult to break out from. Already there are reports that the attack has driven thousands of people from their homes near the border. The refugee situation in Liberia may well be the first to be affected.
Finally, it is difficult to predict what will happen in the future. There are no indications that these attacks are the last ones. Rather the opposite is true. As Gbagbo’s trial begins the number of attacks may even increase. In the case of a sentence the situation will likely deteriorate. Gbagbo’s supporters hope for a quick trial and acquittal, and not the six-year wait that the followers of Charles Taylor had to bear from 2006 onwards until his recent conviction. The announcement of the Liberian government to deploy the Armed Forces of Liberia to the border is also worrying, considering that no-one seems to have much trust in the military.
Another aspect of the conflict that I did not discuss in the previous posting is an ethnic one. As with the Liberian civil crisis, even the conflict in Ivory Coast is seen as an ethnic one by many in Grand Gedeh. In this case it extends to the Krahn and Gio on the Ivorian side of the border (i.e. the Guere and Yacouba). The Krahn in Liberia also claim that they cannot freely enter the neighboring Nimba County in fear of harassment by the Gio, whereas there are many Gio living freely in Grand Gedeh. While there are no signs that this dimension of the conflict is spreading to Liberia, it can be good to keep in mind that even this dimension is real to the people here. In any case, something is definitely brewing in Eastern Liberia and Western Ivory Coast.
Ilmari Käihkö is a doctoral student at Uppsala University currently doing fieldwork in Eastern Liberia.