Finding the right words to describe people’s experiences is usually easy for any passionate media professional. However, when it comes to relating one’s own experiences without being in any way narcissistic, writing can prove to be a difficult endeavour. An endeavour one has to undertake in order to describe the realities of one’s profession. The following is an account of how I spent the last six months, both as a journalist and an ordinary citizen.
By Selay Marius Kouassi, Abidjan
After capturing several cities in the interior, they entered Abidjan on Thursday 31 March 2011. I then realised that things would only get worse. I managed to buy some groceries and other essentials the day before, despite the highly inflated prices.
On the following day, the main road leading to our office building was taken over by heavily armed soldiers. It was almost impossible to access my office. Therefore, I decided to use a room in my apartment as a makeshift office. Fortunately, like in few other areas in the city, cell phone, electricity and internet connections were still available.
Confined to my apartment, I spent sleepless nights working. Outside, heavy blasted followed one another. But I needed to verify the information received from my sources on both sides. I must admit that I sometimes put myself at high risk.
Sides are important on the ground
I walked along walls riddled with bullet holes, threading my way through broken doors and glass debris. On the empty streets, decomposing or carbonised bodies (burnt by local residents) completed the city’s apocalyptic scenery.
At a checkpoint held by armed gunmen, I had the scare of my life. “Move! Hands up! Your ID!”, shouted a tall soldier with the figure of an American basketball player. Shaking with fear, I presented him with my press card –a purposeful choice that was met by indifference on his part. He had me in check, with his gun pointed at my chest, close to my heart. The type of card did not matter at all to the soldier; he only cared about the name.
“Your name is Kouassi? That’s fine! Get lost!”, he said to me. ‘Kouassi’ is a popular name among people from the central part of the country. Since most of the centre voted for Alassane Ouattara in the second round of the presidential elections, the soldier assumed my political allegiance. As a result, I was considered an ally rather than an enemy. Had this been one of the checkpoints held by pro-Gbagbo militias, I would be dead. Having a name like mine would have carried a death sentence. So once again, I was lucky.
I had never been as threatened and coaxed as I was in the last six months. High ranking politicians and military officers tried to lure me on their side. When that failed, I received numerous threats.
“I heard your intervention on BBC, my English is not that good but I know you were talking about the situation in our country. I am warning you. There are things a true son of the country must not say (what did he mean by ‘true’? Probably, everyone who adheres to his political views).” The call was ended before I could identify the threatening voice.
Another time, my phone rang and it was a high-ranking politician, the consul of Ivory Coast in a Western country, on the line.
No political ties
“I read you contributions in the foreign media [...] I admit that I do not have any diplomatic training. I owe my position to the generosity of President Gbagbo. If his regime falls, I will go down with it. Please rally your media connections around the world to help us. I will show you gratitude”, implored the sexagenarian diplomat.
As an independent journalist, I do not work for any press with ties to a political party. My future, like that of all independent journalists, is not necessarily all that brighter. I was caught between two fires: the anger and frustrations of a stumbling regime and the wrath of the former rebels now known as Forces Républicaines.
It would later come to my attention that two of my journalist friends had been critically wounded, while covering a demonstration quelled by heavy arms. Three more journalists are still missing.
The images of the bombing of military camps in Akouédo and the presidential residence in Cocody, where incumbent Gbagbo retreated, will forever be engraved in my memory - that, and the excessive joy and celebrations in pro-Ouattara areas contrasting with the sulkiness of Gbagbo’s supporters.
From the heights of my apartment, I could see the fireballs dropping from United Nations and French military helicopters. As they pounded various targets in the Akouédo military camp, a dark cloud of smoke filled the Abidjan sky and covered the city.
Writing about my personal experiences (the battlefield, the hard times and atrocities) brought me personal relief and stability. I hope that my stories have also contributed to improving the lives of my fellow countrymen.
Life is slowly returning to normal in Abidjan as well as in other cities of the country’s interior. Newspapers are gradually reappearing on the shelves, but freedom of press remains a perpetual struggle.