I originally wrote this blog post about covering the war in Ivory Coast in May 2011 but it was lost when www.caparkinson.com was hacked earlier this year. I’ve re-edited it and have embedded the films that we made during our visit. Questions and feedback are greatly appreciated.
“Breathe through your mouth.” Said my colleague Andrew as I gagged at the heavy smell of death. I’d seen bodies before, but not in the number that they littered the battlefields of Ivory Coast. The town of Duekoue had just fallen into the hands of the troops backing the elected President Alassane Ouattara – a massacre followed. It’s hard to say exactly who killed who and why. All sides have been pointing fingers and no one can decide how many bodies had actually been found. Our team arrived a few days after the event, the first foreign journalists to make it this far west, past the dozens of check points that lined the road from Yamoussoukro.
The dead were everywhere, covered in black plastic by the side of the road. I jumped out of the car and began to film, working on instinct, trying to not to think too much about what I was seeing. The UN and had begun clearing up, loading the bodies onto a large Flat-bed truck. The sound of them being slid across the metal floor before bumping to a standstill seemed incredibly loud in the otherwise eerie silence.
A Moroccan Soldier, serving with the UN, reprimanded a group of Ouattara soldiers at a nearby check-point – “No more killing.” He told them angrily. They looked sullen, denying any responsibility. I just kept filming, hoping that by documenting this I was somehow helping, telling a story that needed to be told. That night the Moroccan troops allowed us to use their Officers mess at the UN base as an edit suite and a place to sleep. They looked after us well, bringing us coffee, bread and even a plate of Arabic sweets. They were good guys.
This was my fourth trip to Ivory Coast. My first had been fun, a football film in the run up to the World Cup. But things had quickly deteriorated and the last few visits had all been to document the countries gradual descent into war. Abidjan had become a terrifying place for foreign journalists since the incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo had refused to recognize his election defeat. In January my team were stopped and threatened with death at a particularly nasty check point.
In recent weeks the forces of Alassane Ouattara had swept through much of the country and had advanced deep into Abidjan itself. Just getting into the country to cover the story had been a huge effort. We had flown to Bamako in Mali and driven for nineteen hours to get to Bouake, the capital of the northern portion of the country.
After filing our film on the massacre in Duekoue we headed towards the front line in Abidjan.The road towards the city was deserted, market stalls that would normally be thriving were abandoned. We were approaching the front. Eventually we arrived at the main staging point for Ouattaras soldiers, at a Shell Garage in an area called Gesco. We found hundreds of fighters exhausted and sprawled in any shade they could find trying to sleep. We advanced further along the road, more bodies littered the route, rotting and covered in maggots. Civilians brave enough to venture out looking for food and water were so terrified they had they hands raised the whole time – even while being interviewed by us.
Abidjan was dangerous, sporadic firefights were everywhere and it was impossible to advance any further into the city. We tried to arrange a military convoy to take us to the Golf Hotel where President Ouattara had been based for months, protected by the UN. Thirty seconds after we left, we were forced to turn back when the fighters with us said they’d seen wounded on the road and that it was too dangerous too proceed.
We spent five days on the edge of town filing stories from a Bar/Guesthouse about twenty kilometers from the frontlines. I shared a room with Correspondent Andrew Harding. The toilet stank, forcing me to hold my breath every time I went inside and the bed sheets were crawling with insects. But they cooked us an evening meal every night and they had a big supply of cold drinks – a welcome morale booster after filming in the sticky humidity of West Africa.
Eventually on 11th April, Laurent Gbagbo was captured. We were in a town well north of Abidjan and captured the amazing, spontaneous celebrations. School children flooded into the street waving branches and singing whilst adults danced and pounded on car horns filling the town with a cacophony of noise. It had been a hard time for Ivory Coast and I hoped that finally the healing could begin.