Dakar — The news of a ceasefire in Côte d’Ivoire comes as a relief to Abiba, but her concern remains how to find infant formula for her four-week-old twins; she is not eating and drinking enough to produce breast milk, and shops have been closed for days amid fierce fighting in the main city, Abidjan.
“Her case is typical of so many people across Abidjan, who have not been able to access food, water or medical care for weeks,” Gaëlle Bausson of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) told IRIN.
Abiba has enough formula for just one more day. She has been trying to reach a paediatrician by phone for advice, to no avail. “I want to ask what I might give to my babies if I can’t find formula. Perhaps sugar-water – but we’ve got no sugar.”
In the past several days – after forces opposed to Laurent Gbagbo entered Abidjan – residents have been holed up in their homes as buildings shook with weapons fire and armed men looted shops and offices throughout the city. The UN estimates that some one million people have been displaced by violence in Abidjan in recent weeks.
“No one can move in Abidjan right now, given the insecurity,” said Action Contre la Faim head of mission Yann Dutertre. “We are preparing to intervene with food aid and water and sanitation measures as soon as conditions allow.”
Anthony Lake, UNICEF executive director, said in a 4 April statement aid agencies “urgently” need to reach people at risk – especially unaccompanied children, and women who are heads of households. “We fear outbreaks of disease if we and other agencies cannot reach the thousands of families displaced by the conflict.”
Abidjan residents IRIN contacted said they were rationing the small amount of food they have. Every one of them said if people are not able to access food in the next couple of days they will be in grave danger.
“We’ve still got some bags of macaroni left, but not for much longer,” a youth who along with a few other residents of Abidjan’s Abobo District have sought refuge in a church.
From time to time someone will show up in a neighbourhood selling food – dried okra, leaves for sauce, canned goods. “People jump on any little bit of food that arrives in the area; you have to fight for it,” Abiba said. “And of course prices are soaring. The other day I spent 2,000 CFA francs (US$4.30) on a small can of tomatoes that normally costs a quarter of that.”
In some areas piped water is cut all or part of the time, residents said. Hundreds of people have been seen in recent days collecting water from the lagoon, which is heavily polluted.
The World Food Programme (WFP) has suspended all operations in Abidjan due to the security situation, WFP spokesperson for West Africa Malek Triki told IRIN. “The agency reached some 4,000 displaced people in Abidjan in recent weeks and plans to continue distributions once the security situation stabilizes."
Since the UN endorsed Alassane Ouattara as the winner of the 28 November 2010 presidential election, Gbagbo militants – who have long had an uneasy relationship with the UN in Côte d’Ivoire – have attacked UN workers. UNICEF says among the greatest challenges to providing urgently needed aid is securing humanitarian access.
Even if major combat ends between pro-Ouattara and pro-Gbagbo forces, insecurity reigns in Abidjan, with continued looting and the threat of reprisal attacks among heavily armed militants on both sides.
Ouattara’s top priority must be to restore law and order in Abidjan, disarming people on both sides, said Rinaldo Depagne, senior West Africa analyst with International Crisis Group. “It's the economic centre of the country and a state of peace must be quickly re-established there...Ouattara will have to use the police, gendarmes, the UN and the French to re-establish peace.”