A tale of a forgotten humanitarian crisis and its consequences on sports in Ivory Coast…
Gone are those romping days when ‘Drogbacite’ DJ mixings used to provoke graceful dance steps in and outside beer parlours across Ivory Coast, one of the safest and sprightliest nations in west Africa.
Gone are those days when saggy buses packed full of colourful and wanton soccer fans used to gyrate across town towards the Felix Houphouet Boigny Stadium in Abidjan.
Gone are those days when club management used to bustle their players into a van either for training sessions or to play a fixture.
You can no longer do these things in the Ivory Coast, for fear of either picking up a stray bullet or being blown up by a missile haphazardly launched from nowhere to nowhere. Whispers of how to flee the country and where to land have replaced the hitherto street gossips of top Ivorian players scoring good goals and making big money at Europe's top clubs.
There is no more talk of what Didier Drogba will likely do in Chelsea’s next encounter. No more talk on whether Gervinho will move to Liverpool. Football babbles have been relegated to the lowest division, as the quest to survive the hard times intensifies, with money, food and medicine as scarce as a World Cup goal.
After more than 16 years of freelance work in the Ivory Coast, I knew my time to move on had come after resisting calls from my Ivorian wife to flee the godforsaken place when the troubles started last November in the wake of a contested presidential run-off.
I was fed up with the sleepless nights when ceaseless cracks of gunshots tormented my night inspiration and the peaceful sleep of my kids. I was tired of explaining to my three-year-old daughter that the dead bodies we always see outside at dawn after night gun battles were not sleeping people, but they were gone forever. When she asked: “Dad, but why do they have holes and blood stains all over?” I’d reiterate that they would never be able to stand and walk again.
A family of four – me, my wife and two kids aged three and 11 months – needed to plan before moving, but the rumours of an impending civil war drove us out like thousands of others. There was no money for a transport fare to Ghana, the nearest safe haven. Banks had been shut down in the Ivory Coast two months earlier. No other means of receiving money existed, and still to date this prevails.
I decided to hawk around my colour TV and laptop, but who had the money to buy anything? My wife suggested we travel on foot from town to town and city to city until we got lost from the Ivory Coast, while trying to sell our clothes and her jewellery along the way in order to feed. It was risky but I yielded to her determination to embrace uncertainty rather than entertain a visible death.
Whenever we sold something equivalent to a bus fare to the nearest town, we would board, and pamper the tired kids, making sure their unstable temperature didn’t exceed what would force us to abandon the journey for hospital, though of course none were in sight.
Six days and six nights of a hectic journey brought us to Ghana, where my wife heaved a deep sigh of relief and thanked me for accepting her proposition earlier on. “Dying of hunger, thirst and homelessness will take days or weeks, but dying of a bullet is less than a second,” she had said as I took a seat at a bus station in central Accra watching Ivorian women, men and children disembarking from vans with tattered and dusty luggage on their heads, and trying not to greet “Bonjour”, but “Good morning”.
I met a midfielder from an Abidjan-based club, whom I used to watch in those cool days at the Stade Champroux in Marcory, Abidjan. He had just made the journey too to Accra, but unlike us, his club had given its players some money for cover.
“I’m here to seek a club, there's no more going back to the Ivory Coast,” he told me. “Even if I don’t play football anymore, I want to stay alive,” he said, reminding me of a young Ivorian player who was killed by gunmen in Abidjan while working out one morning.
I saw a 30-something lady at the same bus station. She was with her two daughters aged between five and seven. She had been roaming the station for four days with no house to sleep in, nowhere to go. In Ghana, you must pay three years in advance to get the smallest one-room accommodation. Where would a refugee who had sold her two bags of rice to make the journey down get that amount from?
She said she was from Abobo, that part of Abidjan where fighting between government forces and rebels had claimed hundreds of lives and displaced more than half a million.
“My husband, a Physical and Health Education teacher, picked a stray bullet and died. We couldn’t bury him because bullets were still flying in the air. We had to take the greatest risk of our life and flee. In our neigbourhood of PK 18, the odour of the decaying dead bodies of hundreds of those killed in the fighting was suffocating for me and my daughters. Nobody was coming to take out the piled up corpses, which might also include that of my, my husband...” she managed to explain before breaking down in tears.
I had no help to offer. I pulled out our last bit of cash – five Ghana cedis ($3.50) and gave it to her. She smiled, thanked me and asked when we shall meet again. I had no answer because I had no accommodation either.
Just as thousands of Ivorians troop out to continue their existence in Ghana, the Elephants have also been forced to move down to Accra for their face-off against Benin on March 27. But who cares about that encounter when countless Ivorian refugees are still homeless, penniless and hopeless in a foreign land, with many more on transit and coming?
I remember how George Weah laboured to bring assistance to Liberian refugees across west Africa in the 90s, sometimes renting ships and trucks full of food items, medicine and clothes, to give to innocent souls, forced out of their fatherland by politics, arrogance and greed.
Maybe it’s time for the likes of Didier Drogba, the Toure brothers and others, to return the love their fans had showered on them when peace reigned and when football was sweet. But for now, the world seems to have forgotten these cases of physical pain and trauma.