ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (BP)–As violence escalates between opposing political factions in Ivory Coast, this once-thriving nation is being pushed to the brink not only of a civil war but a humanitarian disaster.
The United Nations reports that civilians are being attacked and killed by armed forces, while up to 1 million people have fled their homes to safer areas, including neighboring countries Liberia, Ghana, Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mauritania. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that at least 400,000 of Ivory Coast’s 1 million displaced civilians are now refugees in neighboring countries.
Baptist Global Response is attempting to assess prospects for a humanitarian response, a process made more difficult by the lack of Southern Baptist personnel in the country, a BGR spokesman said. International Mission Board personnel are key partners for the BGR international relief and development organization in crisis situations, and IMB missionaries and their families assigned to Ivory Coast have been relocated outside of the country as a result of violence stemming from last November’s disputed presidential election.
“All of our IMB personnel that are based in Ivory Coast have been … relocated to neighboring countries until the current crisis ends,” said Stephen Haber, IMB director of personnel support for Sub-Saharan Africa. “From those areas they continue to engage people with the Gospel with the hopes of returning to Ivory Coast soon.”
Scott Bradford, an IMB strategy leader for part of western Africa, including Ivory Coast, said IMB personnel “desperately want to be back there to encourage and minister to folks face-to-face and not from a distance. Unfortunately the situation is becoming more volatile each day.”
Some Christians in Ivory Coast wonder “what God is doing,” Bradford said. “One of the believers said they cannot sleep at night because of the fighting going on outside. I am sure each is suffering and am certain there are those who feel abandoned and are wondering why is this happening…, what God is doing and how He is working through this.”
IMB missionary Jerry Robertson, who recently left Ivory Coast and is now in Ghana, said, “The people in Abidjan are going to start starving soon. People outside the city who farm will be OK, but pretty soon the people in the city are going to be starving.”
Dominique Dah, pastor of Treichville Baptist Church in Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s capital, said people are arriving off the street seeking assistance. Food is scarce, he said, and people are having problems accessing their money from local banks. The church is located six miles from the troubled areas of the city.
Members of Baptist churches throughout Ivory Coast continue to “meet, fast and pray,” Robertson said. “The Baptist churches I know have a big emphasis on prayer. They don’t have vast numbers, and they’ve seen mass demonstrations just get people killed. They believe the resolution has got to come through prayer.”
The situation creates a crisis for international relief agencies, since funding to assist the refugees is alarmingly low, relief officials say.
“The situation in Ivory Coast is one of the forgotten crises going on in the world, with the U.N. begging for funding,” said Mark Hatfield, Baptist Global Response director for Sub-Saharan Africa. “I think they have received somewhere in the ballpark of 25 percent of their requests for funds. They are seeing the number of people fleeing troubled areas grow daily.”
Hatfield described the situation as “one of those manmade disasters that many people write off as just another African political crisis.” He indicated that a BGR assessment team would be needed to decide what kind of response might be called for from Southern Baptists.
If BGR were to help provide relief, there would need to be Southern Baptist personnel on the ground to coordinate the efforts, Hatfield said.
Among the humanitarian crises unfolding in Ivory Coast, 30,000 people are trapped in a Catholic church compound in the southwestern town of Duekoue after fleeing clashes between opposing armies, according to the BBC. Many arrived at the compound with gunshot wounds, and a majority of those seeking refuge are migrants from nearby countries who have been working in Ivory Coast, the BBC reported.
Ivory Coast’s president-elect, Alassane Ouattara, asked the U.N. in late March to provide “legitimate force” to protect civilians, saying his opponent, Laurent Gbagbo, has unleashed his army on the country’s population. This followed a mortar attack conducted by Gbagbo forces that killed 25 people in Abidjan.
Gbagbo refuses to cede the presidency after losing to Ouattara in last November’s presidential election.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) also appealed for U.N. intervention, while the African Union is making attempts to negotiate a settlement. The international community, including the U.N. and the United States, recognizes Ouattara as Ivory Coast’s legitimate president.
In an address to the people of Ivory Coast in late March, U.S. President Barack Obama said, “Last year’s election was free and fair, and President Alassane Ouattara is the democratically elected leader of the nation.” Obama called for Gbagbo to step down, saying a refusal to do so will lead to “more violence, more innocent civilians being wounded and killed, and more diplomatic and economic isolation.”
The U.N. Security Council currently is considering new sanctions against Ivory Coast introduced by France and Nigeria. These would be in addition to sanctions already in place since 2004. The new measures would ban heavy weapons in Abidjan, where Gbagbo is accused of using mortars to fire on civilians. They would also call for an investigation into human rights violations.
Bradford urged Christians around the world to pray for the situation. “Pray that amidst all the suffering, those who follow Christ and are still on the ground can be a witness and encouragement to both believers and unbelievers,” he said. “Pray for an end to come quickly.”
Charles Braddix is a writer and photographer for the International Mission Board stationed at the Baptist Press Africa Bureau in Johannesburg. Baptist Global Response is on the Web at www.gobgr.org.