They are dozos: a brotherhood of initiated traditional hunters renowned for their mystical powers, and to be found in Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea and Mali.
In Côte d'Ivoire in the 1990s the dozos began to assume a role of unofficial neighbourhood police - called in by some communities and authorities to control worsening crime amid inadequate state police protection.
Dozos, who practice intricate rites in their work as hunters and guards, "treated Côte d'Ivoire's crime wave as a symptom of a larger moral disorder that threatened community well-being, requiring a comprehensive, ethical cure that they articulated through ritual," explains author and university professor Joseph Hellweg in his 2011 book Hunting the Ethical State: The Benkadi movement of Côte d'Ivoire.
Throughout the north, the dozos' base in Côte d'Ivoire, it has long been common to see the men standing guard at homes or businesses or riding about on motorcycles, rifles in hand, long knives in tunic pockets. There are currently 20,000 dozos in Côte d'Ivoire, according to Balla Dembélé, a dozo leader based in Duékoué.
Q&A with scholar who spent years with dozos in Côte d'Ivoire
So when the pro-Alassane Ouattara (and now government) Forces Républicaines de Côte d'Ivoire (FRCI) recently called on dozos to keep watch on the crime-ridden Man-Duékoué road, after a government order to dismantle unauthorized FRCI checkpoints, it was not unusual.
But after the post-election fighting in the west, where local residents and human rights groups say dozos, allied with FRCI, killed innocent civilians, it is a delicate situation.
During years of unrest since the 2002 rebellion that split Côte d'Ivoire into a Laurent Gbagbo government-controlled south and rebel-held north, dozos were associated with, and regularly fought alongside, the rebels. Many Ivoirians say dozos are able to make combatants bullet-proof.
Duékoué lies just south of the zone taken by rebels after 2002. Until the post-election crisis, dozos were present in the west but rather inconspicuous; they were mainly planters and worked as guards in communities that hired them, according to Yro Firmin, spokesperson for the largely pro-Gbagbo Guéré population at the Catholic mission site for displaced families. But when FRCI took Duékoué in March, the city "saw a vast penetration of dozos", he said.
Human rights violations
The human rights section of the UN Operation in Côte d'Ivoire (UNOCI) said dozos "definitely participated" in massacres in late March when FRCI moved into Duékoué.
Concluding that there are "two categories of dozos: traditional hunters and combatants", UNOCI puts dozos among several parties - pro-Gbagbo military and militia, pro-Ouattara military, and civilians - who committed acts of violence or looting in the west.
Amnesty International (AI) in a 28 July report says dozos are keeping the local Guéré population in fear, and accuses "government security forces and the dozos" of "currently committing human rights violations". AI calls on the government to disband what the group calls "state-backed militia" - namely the dozos.
This is how many Guéré see the dozo as well. "You hear of Gbagbo's militia," said Dénis, among the displaced at the Duékoué Catholic mission. "Dozos are Ouattara's militia."
Another at the mission site said there are bad actors in any group and one cannot generalize about dozos.
Col Gaoussou Soumahoro, FRCI head of operations, said on UN radio on 29 July that the dozos are not under FRCI orders.
It is unclear how the ongoing disarmament process will handle the dozos. Staff at the National Programme for Reinsertion and Rehabilitation, which is reviewing army membership and working on demobilization of combatants, had no comment.
Meanwhile, Guéré IRIN spoke with in Duékoué and the nearby town of Guiglo say disarmament - including for dozos - is indispensable.
Guéré at the Duékoué mission site told IRIN dozos and FRCI on secondary roads and in villages continue to demand money and in some cases attack local residents, blocking them from their plantations. They cite this among the main obstacles to returning to their villages.
While the lack of homes is blocking many families' return (countless houses were destroyed in the fighting) insecurity remains a considerable problem.
Today in the west the image of the dozos has been transformed, say some Guéré. "The dozos initially came to this region as guardians for any community who wanted to call on them, but now we see they had intentions behind that," Stéphan told IRIN. "Today we're seeing their true aim; they wanted to penetrate our region, expand and attack us... Now they've got their president in power. That's what they were after."
Aid groups are training dozos in the region on basic rights and proper procedures in dealing with the population, according to dozo Dembélé and Duékoué Prefect Benjamin Effoli.
"It is hoped that if the dozos posted here for local security will be respectful and fair to all groups, the Guéré will gradually gain confidence in them," Effoli told IRIN. IRIN observed that the dozos along the Man-Duékoué road do not stop vehicles as the FRCI were doing in past months; dozos said they are paid by transporters in Man.
Fighting for justice?
Dozos IRIN spoke with said they have got nothing against innocent civilians; they did not deny participating in the post-election fighting but said it was against pro-Gbagbo militia.
"If some dozos fought against the Gbagbo regime, it was to establish justice, and honour the people's vote," said Vassiaka Timité, 63, a dozo from Sarhala. "Once FRCI mobilized to put Ouattara in power, we joined them because justice had to be done. We're accused of killing, but Gbagbo militia and mercenaries killed also. People mustn't exaggerate and represent dozos as some heartless murderers."
Dembélé, a Malian who's lived in Côte d'Ivoire since 1958 and in Duékoué since 1978, said dozos have got nothing against Guéré.
"The war is over... Dozos target only criminals," he told IRIN in Duékoué, adding that wrongdoers can be of any ethnic group.
Dozos held meetings in Duékoué (11 June) and in the main city Abidjan (25 July) to reinforce the message that the fighting is over. "For a time there were two presidents, but now Laurent Gbagbo is gone and Alassane Ouattara is president," Dembélé said. "If we continue the fighting that will ruin Alassane's name... The message is: The war is over, let's resume our work of before - fighting crime."
Even that role for the dozos has been debated over the decades. During the Henri Konan Bédié administration in the 1990s, some politicians called for dozo disarmament, concerned that they constituted a "parallel" force; dozos insist their mission is to serve the population.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]