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Out of Abidjan

It’s been non-stop for the past week. After reports of fighting near our office in Abidjan last Wednesday, we closed the office early and sent everyone home as soon as it was safe to do so. Already on the way back from a quick break for lunch at a local maquis (food stall) down the street from our office, my colleagues and I heard gunfire exchanged not too far away. We hurried back to the office to get back to work and to make sure we had the latest updates from our security team.

When we got back to our Country Director’s house (where we’ve all been living together) reports of fighting continued as we heard exchanges of gunfire in a neighbouring part of town and a few loud explosions. Helicopters continued to circle sporadically overhead as we discussed what the next steps were. I had been hoping to get on the UN flight to Bouaké on Friday morning to provide support on communications there – meeting with displaced children and families fleeing violence in Abidjan and spreading the word on what these children need.

It quickly became clear that I wouldn’t be able to stay until Friday morning. We decided I’d have to take the next available flight out of Abidjan. Although I was disappointed to have to leave the country when there was so much to report on, I understood that security needs to take precedence.

Flight out

Over 1 million people have been forced to flee their homes in Côte d’Ivoire following heavy fighting sparked by the disputed presidential elections.

So on Thursday morning we headed to the airport. I had a flight to Dakar booked for just after noon. At the airport, chaos reigned. I waited among hundreds of people trying to get a flight out. People’s carts were piled high with whatever possessions they could take with them – prayer mats, clothes, a few valued items that families couldn’t bear to be parted with. Some people were shouting at each other and breaking through queues that the airport staff had tried to put in place. Quite rightly, families with young children were prioritised for check-in. After two hours of waiting I was able to check in.

The flight was fully booked. My two colleagues were put on the waiting list – they had originally planned to stay behind in Abidjan, but with the situation deteriorating fast on Thursday, had made their way to the airport to try to get out on the next flight available. But when I finally got on the plane, many of the seats were empty. As we took off, I grew increasingly worried for all those left behind – including my two colleagues whom I knew were still at the airport.

As soon as we landed in Dakar, I got my bags and headed to our regional office, calling anyone I could to get an update. My two colleagues were still at the airport, but had managed to get on a flight out to Accra and then Dakar that afternoon. Soon after they took off, international borders were closed. Just in time for them, but of course our thoughts were with the hundreds of thousands of children and families still stuck in Abidjan as reports of heavy fighting grew.

Fierce violence

I thought of Georgette, a mother of four girls, who had been forced to flee their home in Abobo. She managed to find a host family in Yopougon, one of the many areas of Abidjan that has seen heavy violence in the past week. Were they OK? Were they safe? One of her daughters was one year old and hadn’t stopped crying the whole time I was with the family. How was she coping now, with the noise of gunshots and explosions across the city?

As fighting continued in Abidjan over the weekend, we tried to get hold of our colleagues and friends in Abidjan. Phone lines have been down and electricity has been cut across several parts of the city. Was everyone OK?

One woman I knew from the UN had been killed by a stray bullet as she sat inside, eating her dinner. What about all of those we couldn’t get in touch with? Had any of them been hit as well?

Reports of lootings grew throughout the weekend as, one by one, we slowly managed to get in touch with most of our staff. I say most of them as we still have not been able to get hold of some of them, despite days of calling and emailing. So we still don’t know if all our staff are OK. Some of them have had armed men come to their houses and take their things. One colleague’s husband had to help the looters put the batteries back in the car so they could take it – the family had taken the batteries out to discourage thieves. So in the end they had to assist with the looting of their own things so that the men would not hurt them.

On Monday morning Save the Children launched an urgent appeal for funds. We’re trying to raise $40 million to help meet the immediate needs of 650,000 children and their families who have been directly affected by the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire and neighbouring Liberia.

Huge crisis

We’re still in touch with our staff across the country, although getting through on the phone or even sometimes by internet is still a massive challenge. The reports we’re getting in paint a grim picture. In Duekoué, the site of reported mass killings where the UN has said they’ve found a mass grave with more than 200 people, thousands of displaced children and their families are running dangerously low on food and water.

We’re extremely worried about their health as reports of cholera have started coming in. Our staff in the west have described the stench as they enter one of the sites, packed to way over capacity with people who don’t have the basic necessities they need to wash themselves regularly. I was really pleased that we were able to deliver food for 20,000 people last Sunday, but there is so much more that needs to be done. We’re scaling up to meet the massive humanitarian needs that we know is there.

Today in Abidjan, despite yesterday’s ceasefire reports, we’re still hearing that fighting has continued. Another day of insecurity, of staying inside and living off whatever people have been able to stock up.

I’m off to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, tonight.  I will try to get back into Ivory Coast tomorrow morning through the north. We need to get back in and respond to the growing humanitarian crisis that’s now reached alarming levels. We can’t disappoint those children and families who need urgent assistance.

Annie Bodmer-Roy, Media and Communications Manager, Ivory Coast

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