At the Catholic mission in the western Ivoirian town of Duékoué, women with shaved heads are everywhere – one mourning ritual people taking refuge at the site continue to observe. They have had to abandon many others, even proper burials, for fear of violent attacks like those that forced them from their homes in the town or surrounding villages.
“I could not even cry,” said Bah Bonao Sidonie, 41, whose one-year-old grandson recently died at the mission after a short bout of diarrhoea. “People told me that given that we are already so troubled by our situation, I should not cry over the death.”
Many people who have died at the mission from illness or injuries have not been properly buried for fear of attacks by armed men; the cemetery is next to a neighbourhood where hundreds of people were killed in late March. Recently, four bodies of people who died of illness at the mission were deposited nearby for collection by aid workers or UN peacekeepers stationed in Duékoué, who regularly help with burials.
The mission hosts about 27,400 people, mostly from the Guéré community who say in recent months they have suffered attacks by Malinké, Baoulé and other ethnic groups who cultivate the region’s fertile land. Coffee and cocoa plantations are owned largely by Guéré with plots commonly farmed by people from outside the region or outside Côte d’Ivoire; land disputes have plagued the region for years.
“Lately politics has entered in,” said Téhé Fié Ernest, 42, who fled with his family from the nearby village of Toa-Zéo after violence erupted during the second-round presidential election in November 2010.
Bah had already shaved her head when her grandson died. Three of her brothers had also been killed in Duékoué’s Carréfour neighbourhood in March “when the soldiers [anti-Gbagbo forces] came”. She buried the child herself, alone.
“I asked people living here at the mission, as well as the blue helmets, to accompany me to bury my grandson, but I went hours without getting any help," she told IRIN. "The youth here at the mission risk being attacked by the Dioula [Malinké] so they can’t go out. I put the child’s body on my back and walked to [the cemetery near] Carréfour; only God accompanied me.
"I prayed to God to protect me," she added. "I dug a hole with a `daba’ [traditional hoe], buried the child, said a prayer and came back.”
Photo: Nancy Palus/IRIN
|Displaced children in line to receive a hot meal in Duékoué|
Burial rites thwarted
While an adult is buried some days after death, normally a child is buried straight away (by male members of the family), “so the parents do not live the pain of seeing the body for a long time”, Téhé told IRIN. Then elders from the family wash the child’s parents with plants found in the bush. Those who have the means kill a cow or a goat for the funeral ceremony.
“During this time of war, families can’t do all that,” Téhé said. His son-in-law, Hervé, sat by, looking over his two-year-old son who has what the family believes to be chickenpox. The latter’s twin brother had the same symptoms when he died on 11 April.
“That day there were three bodies and by the grace of God we got help from the blue helmets,” Téhé said. “They stayed with us for the burial and accompanied us back.
“We prayed over the bodies, for their souls to find a peaceful place… Despite the chaotic situation, we can’t just toss the body of a loved one somewhere. We have to pray for their souls.”
He pointed to his son-in-law and his daughter - the twins’ mother. “We can’t wash them with the traditional medicines as we should. And really they should live elsewhere for a period of time, not in the same place where their child died. It hurts [not to be able to follow these customs] but we must accept it.”
It is difficult to walk about the mission grounds without bumping into people or tripping over a cooking pot or small piles of charcoal or peppers for sale. Father Cyprien Ahouré, head of the mission, said one of the most urgent problems at the site is overcrowding.
“We’ve got to move people to other sites," he said. "We could handle about 1,000 people here."
Squeezed against the wall of a tent was a group of people sitting around a woman who was wailing. People standing nearby said she’d just learned her brother had been killed. They were letting her cry.