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18 June

St. Elizabeth of Schoenau
1900: the first Brothers leave for Bom Principio, Brazil

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Marist Bulletin - Number 120


The Ivory Coast

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The Ivory Coast has been plagued with civil unrest since September 2002. Now, for safetys sake, the brothers whove been working at two schools, in Korhogo and Bouaké, have left the country. Bouaké has also served as a residence for Brother José Antonio Ruiz, the District Superior, who visited with the brothers in the country from October 29 to November 13. Here is a December 2003 interview published in the second edition of the Marist District of West Africas District Notes. Today the situation in the Ivory Coast continues to be a burning issue, almost resolved but with many ifs. Now two Ivorian brothers have returned to their homeland to restart our work in Bouake. The school in Korhogo has just reopened and hopefully the one in Bouake will do so soon.

What were the reasons for this trip?
Several Brothers had visited the country during these months of social unrest. I wanted to go and make a personal evaluation of the situation myself, to visit our schools and to see the possibility of the Brothers’ returning to the country. Bro José Descarga went with me and remained in Korhogo.

Your first stage was Abidjan, the capital city, wasn’t it?
Yes, in fact, I had agreed to meet Brothers Alipio and Damian, who had just arrived from Spain. While in Abidjan I made some dealings with the Banks, because the branch at Bouake and Korhogo have closed down; so far there was no problem for the money deposited in the bank. We were lodging with the Marianists and we made contacts with different religious congregations.

What is the atmosphere you experienced in Abidjan?
Abidjan is in area controlled by the Government. Life is quite normal. The banks, the schools, the factories are open. Some enterprises however have closed down. The major problem in the Government controlled area is the arrival of thousands of citizens from the North of the country; they are flying away from the area under control of the so called “rebels”. To welcome and to care for all these people is not an easy task. Just to give you an example, the Sisters who are living in our former community of Dimbokro were telling me that, since the conflict started, the population of the town has multiplied by three.

From Abidjan, where did you go to?
Four of us left in two vehicles towards Bouake. We stopped in Dimbokro to greet the Sisters of the Charity of St Anne, who are now living in our community, as I said before. From there we moved to Thiébissou, the last town before entering into the rebels’ area. We left one of our cars there, that had not licence to enter the rebels’ area, and we reached Bouake with the car of the community of Korhogo.

What can you tell us about Bouake?
Bouake is the capital of the rebels’ area. As we arrived there, we went straight to our residence, near the school. We were welcomed by Fr Maurice, a diocesan priest, who has been looking after our school. Thanks to him, everything has been kept in security: there have been only small robberies. We slept in our house and in the following morning we attended Mass at our Parish. Here we received a warm welcome from the priest and the parishioners. They were very happy to see us back.
The classrooms of our school are being used by UNICEF as one of the 6 centres they have set up for street children. There are about a hundred boys who receive daily literacy lessons and they are given food. Some leisure activities and games are also organized for them. Our garage has become a food store for other similar centres in Bouake.
Our Marist house has not been touched, and I was able to recover some important documents of our District and to bring them to Ghana on my way back. Also in Bouake I had an encounter with some religious communities, to evaluate the situation.

What is the atmosphere on the streets?
Truly, the situation of this part of the country under the rebels’ control is pitiful. Bouake, the second town in the country, looks like a dead city. The parish priest was telling me that about 90% of the faithful have gone away. Many houses are locked, they have been abandoned and they are now looted. Some of the houses in the residential area are now occupied by the rebels. Banks and schools are not functionning. The streets are full of rubbish. However, there is still water and electricity supply, and the telephone lines are working. There are few cars on the streets; for a year there were no taxis: they are coming back little by little. Bros. Alipio, Descarga and Damián went to Korhogo; I remained for 3 or 4 days in Bouake, trying to get a “laissez passer” from the chief rebels; a written document that would allow me to drive the car in the area they are controlling. I walked through the streets of Bouake with no feelings of fear, threaten or insecurity. I noticed a great respect towards the missionaries and the Catholic Church at large. The rebels are aware that, in these difficult moments, the Church has been close to the people, particularly bringing help to those most neglected and most in need.

What about Korhogo?
Once I got the “laissez passer” I went to Korhogo, in the northern part f the country. There were few cars on the road and a lot of check points. When they saw that there was a car belonging to the Catholic Mission they allowed me to go through without any problem.
The house and the school of Korhogo are in perfect conditions. All our employees are there. The members of the religious congregations who left the country are already back or planning to be back. When they learned that we were there, they came to greet us. They all think it is the right time to re-start our presence in the town. The atmosphere in Korhogo is of tiredness; people are fed up of a situation that is lasting too long. The economy has fallen down; there is not freedom of expression, no police or justice’s structures. The chief rebels are getting richer and richer, while the simple people are suffering… Those who had the means, had fled away to the South. Those remaining in town are mostly the Muslims and those of the Senoufo tribe.

So, are there plans for the Brothers’ return to Korhogo?
Brothers Descarga and Alipio are already there. They took the decision to remain there and I agreed with them. They want to see the possibilities to re-open the school and re-start the activities with the children and young people in town. In Korhogo there are three Catholic schools, run by three religious congregations, the Salesians, the Marists and the Daughters of the Cross. Three of us are very well coordinated, and the decision to re-open the schools will be taken by a common agreement. We are longing for it, and we hope that the chief rebels will allow us to do so. There are, however, two serious problems we have to face: the first one is the exodus of teachers and students towards the southern part of the country. They ran away for security reasons and because they did not want to miss the school year. Then we have the economic problems: until now the Government was sending the pupils to the schools and paying for them. We have no idea whether this type of help is going to continue; people have no money to pay the school fees.

And the return to Bouake?
The return of the Brothers to Bouake seems easier. We have just a Primary school there, and the number of pupils who have fled away is not as much as in Korhogo. I do not know what will be the rebels’ reaction if we re-open the school, but I have noticed that they want things to be as normal as possible in the town. Re-opening a school would be a sign of this normality. Two Brothers may reach Bouake in December. At the beginning they may collaborate with UNICEF and with the youth ministry of the parish.

A last question: how do you see the future of this country?
During my two weeks trip, I have listened to many people. In general the level of optimism is quite low. They are afraid that the country might be stabilised in a situation of conflict. I have heard people who feel threatened by the possibility of splitting the country into two, North and South: this would be catastrophic! I hope it will never happen. Presently I do not see an imminent danger of civil war, but many things remain still unclear.

Today we observe the 123rd anniversary of the death of Brother François, our first Superior General, at the Hermitage, France.

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