Up Close and Personal With the Rebels

Dispatches From Ivory Coast

Up Close and Personal With the Rebels

Dispatches From Ivory Coast

Up Close and Personal With the Rebels
Notes from different corners of the world.
Dec. 8 2003 5:15 PM

Dispatches From Ivory Coast

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Some of the young rebels of Leopard Company
Some of the young rebels of Leopard Company

BOUAKÉ, IVORY COAST—The kid wants a cigarette. He doesn't look any older than 15, and I want to tell him that smoking is bad for his health. But there is something about the way he's swinging that AK-47 around that makes me think that this is neither the time nor the place for a lecture on the evils of tobacco.

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I am on the outskirts of Bouaké, a town in central Ivory Coast that has become the headquarters of the rebellion that over the past year has split this once peaceful West African nation in two. The rebels, known as Les Forces Nouvelles, hold the whole northern half of the country; the government controls the south. In Anglophone media coverage, the war here is often incorrectly framed as a religious conflict. It is true that the rebels draw most of their support from northerners who happen to be Muslim, while the government loyalists in the south are primarily Christian. But the war isn't about religion. It's about politics. It is a violent reaction to years of escalating political discrimination against northerners and immigrants, discrimination that has been encouraged by a series of presidents from the south. And the war began in September 2002 as an attempted coup by military officers affiliated with, if not directly supported by, Alassane Ouattara, a former International Monetary Fund official turned opposition politician. Ouattara, who is Muslim and from the north, was disqualified from the 2000 presidential race on the dubious grounds that he wasn't of Ivorian parentage, and during the election, hundreds of his supporters were killed in political violence.

Young rebels at a checkpoint
Young rebels at a checkpoint

The kid should be in school. Instead, he is out here manning the first rebel checkpoint after the "Zone of Confidence." The zone is a 25-mile demilitarized buffer that separates the rebels from the government forces. It was created earlier this year as part of a cease-fire arrangement and is policed by French troops and a multinational force of West African peacekeepers. An iron gate wheeled across the road marks the entrance to rebel-held territory.

I offer the kid one of the Marlboro Reds I carry for just such occasions (I don't smoke myself), and he opens the gate. Just on the other side, however, I am flagged down by another teenager. This one looks like he walked straight out of a rap video: Yankees baseball hat slightly askew over a red bandana, oversize blue jersey, baggy jeans, and white sneakers. Instead of a gun, he's bearing a cell phone—worn on a lanyard around his neck—but he seems angry. He wants to see my pass. I have a laissez-passer from the government, but that one won't do me any good up here. The boy also wants money. My driver refuses to pay, and after a tense argument, we are told to see the "chief of the checkpoint." The chief is an older rebel, maybe 34, with an unkempt beard and dressed in ill-fitting fatigues. After a brief discussion, he lets us pass without payment.

Another half-mile down the road, we come to another checkpoint. Again there's a kid, this time with a submachine gun pointed at us, and again there is a discussion with the chief before we are allowed to pass. As we leave, the kid asks for my translator's baseball cap, which my translator politely refuses to give up. As we get closer to Bouaké, the checkpoints come more frequently. Another gate, another kid playing soldier, another set of demands for money or cigarettes or some article of our clothing, and another chat with the chief. At one roadblock, the teenager who approaches us is wearing blue eye shadow and mascara, a practice apparently copied from Liberian rebels who dress in drag because they believe it renders them invulnerable to bullets. A lot of the rebels are into this sort of sorcery. I meet one group outside my hotel in Bouaké who refuse to have their photo taken, in part because they claim to be wearing amulets that make it impossible to capture their image on film. At another barricade, the smell of marijuana hangs heavy in the air. Actually, the fact that the soldiers are stoned makes for mellow checkpoint encounters. The kids make demands, but they seem too dazed and confused to follow up on them. (I wonder if they get the munchies? Note to self: Next time, forget the smokes; bring Doritos.)

Chief Mobio, the commander of Genie Company
Chief Mobio, the commander of Genie Company
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Just before we get to the center of Bouaké, the checkpoints are literally set up within 10 feet of one another, each one manned by a different crew. This is how Les Forces Nouvelles pays its troops—let them set up as many roadblocks as they want and demand a toll from every passing car or truck. (The government uses a similar tactic, with gendarmes shaking down drivers for a little extra cash at checkpoints throughout the south.) Later, when I question two of the rebel commanders about the number of roadblocks, they seem somewhat embarrassed and say they are trying to eliminate some of them. In general, the rebels are at pains to prove that discipline is not breaking down within their ranks. They are distributing new uniforms—mostly blue jumpsuits—and are making a show of drilling their soldiers. They're eager to dispel the notion that a recent spate of attempted bank robberies, to which Les Forces Nouvelles has responded by inviting in the French to bolster security, is a sign that they are losing control. They blame the robberies on "government infiltrators."

The rebels I meet with in Bouaké are an interesting cast of characters. Les Forces Nouvelles has an overall command structure, but most of their fighters seem to owe their allegiance to individual "chefs de guerre," or war chiefs, rather than Les Forces Nouvelles as a whole. The chiefs are essentially warlords, and some of them bear a striking resemblance to gang leaders from back in the States, especially since half of their soldiers are wearing hip-hop gear. For instance, I meet with Chief Mobio, the commander of Genie Company (their insignia is a tank, although it isn't clear whether they actually possess one). Mobio is built like an NFL running back. He arrives for our meeting at a local restaurant in a small black jeep with a custom paint job, accompanied by a large machine-gun-toting security detail in two 4x4s. Mobio was a sergeant major in the Ivorian army before the rebellion, and he also served as one of Ouattara's bodyguards. Talk about bling-bling: This guy was wearing more gold and silver jewelry than P. Diddy. He has four or five heavy chains around his neck and giant rings on every finger of each hand. Half of his accoutrements spelled out his name: MOBIO. He also flashes a lot of cash during the interview—I think to prove to me that the rebellion isn't hurting for money. Despite looking like a gangland enforcer, Mobio seems fairly thoughtful. He says he welcomes the French intervention and says he is ready for peace. He claims he will lay down his weapons if the political wing of Les Forces Nouvelles instructs him to do so and says he is preparing his men to go back to civilian life.

Cherif Ousmane, commander of Leopard Company
Cherif Ousmane, commander of Leopard Company

Then there is Cherif Ousmane, commander of Leopard Company. Ousmane has a reputation for being one of the most ruthless rebel commanders. His unit is the one assigned Les Forces Nouvelles' most difficult missions. Ousmane is in his early 30s but he seems younger. He has a ferocious stare: He looks every bit the cold-blooded killer he almost certainly is. Ousmane was once a corporal in a crack Ivorian paratroop unit led by Gen. Robert Guei. He helped Guei stage a successful 1999 coup, the first in Ivory Coast's history. Guei installed himself as president and promised elections, but he soon came to distrust many of those around him, including Ousmane. Guei suspected Ousmane, who is a northerner, of being too closely affiliated with his political rival and fellow northerner Ouattara. Guei accused Ousmane of plotting against him and had him thrown in jail. While imprisoned, Ousmane was tortured. In a horrific scene reminiscent of Marathon Man, Guei had a dentist extract Ousmane's front teeth—without anesthetic. Ousmane tells me he could have had false teeth implanted but that he has instead chosen to keep his gap-toothed grin as a visual reminder of why he is fighting. It is rumored that during the initial phase of last year's rebellion Ousmane tracked down the dentist who tortured him and killed him in some gruesome manner. When I ask him about that part of the story, he just flashes that jagged smile and doesn't say word. (Guei was also murdered—along with most of his family—in the first days of the revolt.)

The rebels grow on me during my two days in Bouaké. I meet with members of the Forces Nouvelles' political wing, the Patriotic Movement of Ivory Coast (which goes by the French acronym MPCI), who I find to be extremely intelligent and articulate. While they may not have defeated the government on the battlefield, they have clearly won the media war. This is true in part because, while the government attacks the foreign press for bias, the rebels welcome foreign reporters to their territory. They have a sophisticated communications operation, with representatives in several foreign capitals including Washington, and, interestingly enough, Tel Aviv. The other thing about the rebels is that, at least for an American, their political agenda has great appeal. They want to end discrimination against northerners and allow immigrant farmers to keep their land. One has to keep reminding oneself, however, that their method of achieving these goals—i.e., war—is totally antidemocratic; it has resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians and forced tens of thousands more to flee their homes.