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Why the Ivory Coast matters on Easter Sunday

Sunday is Easter, and whatever religious implications we have decided to attribute or remove from this holiday, the fact remains that millions of kids in the UK, Europe, and the United States will be celebrating the holiday with their families in the safety of their homes, enjoying the long weekend, sharing meals and eating chocolate.

Meanwhile, thousands of families in the cocoa-producing country of Ivory Coast will be spending the weekend in crowded displacement camps. They will wait out the heat and humidity of Easter Sunday huddled en masse in the dirt under makeshift shelters, drenched in sweat, without enough food or clean water, wondering if they will ever be able to make it back to their homes so that they can continue to grow the cocoa that goes into our Easter sweets.

As human beings, we will want to place blame on the confluence of forces – political, military and economic – that put hundreds of thousands of innocent people in this inhumane situation. But as humanitarians, we have to move past this natural inclination to ascribe culpability to those responsible, and concentrate all our efforts into helping the blameless people of Ivory Coast rebuild their lives, regain their dignity, and survive to see another Easter.

“I ran off on my own”

Christine Guervo is a young mother of three, who up until a few weeks ago, lived peacefully with her husband and three children, cultivating cocoa in the dense green forests of western Ivory Coast. Forced to flee their home when violence broke out in their village, Christine and her family escaped to the city of Duékoué and found shelter in the houses of a neighbourhood on the edge of the city.

She explains to me what happened. “My mother and I had been staying there together for one week when they broke down the door and told us everyone had to get out. My mother was killed in the field and so I ran off on my own into the bush. I spent three days hiding in a ravine before I made it to this camp.” At the time, Christine was in the third trimester of her fourth pregnancy. She was carrying twins.

Shortly after she found refuge at the Catholic mission in the city of Duékoué, Christine went into premature labour and was taken to the makeshift maternity ward located in a small cement classroom at the mission. With much difficulty, she gave birth to twins. They were born small and weak, and they both died within a matter of hours after being born.

“They were so small”

“When there wasn’t war, I could eat properly during my pregnancies. But this time, I had no food and could only eat what I was given. Then I had to run and hide in the bush, so I kept falling ill. This is what caused my children to be born early, and why they were so small.”

She pauses to think about how the loss has affected her, “I lost my mother and my brother to this conflict, so it would have made me feel better if at least I had these children instead. Now all I want is for the fighting to end so that I can go back home.

“We don’t have a proper shelter so we get wet when it rains. We don’t have enough food, and the children can’t wash often enough. I’m not well and I can’t get any care for myself.”

Christine sits on the floor of the makeshift maternity ward where she gave birth to her twins. Her feet are swollen to a point that makes walking painful and difficult, and her legs are covered in wounds and scratches from the days she spend hiding the bush. “My children say they don’t want to return to the village as long as the war is going on. They prefer to stay here and die of hunger than go back. I would like to go back home, but my house has been burnt down.”

At the end of our conversation with Christine, my colleague who was helping conduct our interview posed her a final, provocative question that shocked me when he asked it, but the humanity of which I understood as soon as Christine calmly answered with a matter-of-factness that took me aback. “And what if someone told you that the reason you lost your twins was because you are not a good mother? What would you say to them?”

“It’s the fault of this war”

Christine nodded solemnly as she considered the implications of the question and paused in silence. “If someone were to say that to me, I wouldn’t be angry at them for thinking that way, because they would not understand the horrible situation that I have been through. But I would tell them, ‘it’s not my fault I lost my twins, it’s the fault of this war.’

In the past three years I have witnessed first hand the aftermath of too many humanitarian disasters – a war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a cyclone in Burma, a famine in Niger and an earthquake in Haiti to name a few. But there is something different about the Ivory Coast that has been haunting me since I got here and started listening to these people’s stories and witnessing what their lives have become.

This crisis isn’t exciting enough to make the front page of the newspaper you will read this Sunday. And when you turn on the evening news, you won’t see the latest reports because few television crews have travelled to the heat of Duékoué to tell the stories of people like Christine.

Beset by blood

But at some point on Sunday you will probably bite into a delicious piece of chocolate. The oils, sugar and cocoa will break down inside your mouth and combine in the chemical reaction that has fascinated the human tongue for centuries. And somewhere, in that short moment of olfactory ecstasy, in the time it takes for an electronic impulse to travel from your tongue to your brain, you will be connected to the dark soils, now beset by blood, burnt dwellings and broken families, that cover the forest floors of the Ivory Coast.

And if you want to do something to help, you can. Save the Children has been working in the Ivory Coast for 15 years, we have staff on the ground now, and we just flew in a plane with several tonnes of healthcare supplies, including safe delivery kits, helping to reduce the chance of infection after birth. We are also ramping up midwife training and refurbishing birthing clinics helping to ensure that mothers and their newborn babies get the best possible care.

We’ve launched a £25 million emergency appeal to help fund this work. Please donate today.

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