ON THE BANKS OF THE CAVALLY RIVER, Ivory Coast (AP) — The inauguration of Ivory Coast's new president played out before a crowd of tens of thousands. Women wore dresses printed with his portrait. World leaders flew in for the day in a show of international support.
The massacre by the president's men started the day after, at dinnertime.
The soldiers burst into a clearing on the banks of the river here, opening fire with a machine gun mounted on a wheelbarrow. The dozens of families that had sought refuge in this distant spot dropped their plates of food and kicked over pots as they ran.
By the time the soldiers were finished, it was morning and as many as 47 people were dead. The lucky ones drowned in the river.
President Alassane Ouattara's inauguration after a violent, four-month-long standoff with the country's former ruler was supposed to mark the turning of a page in this deeply fractured nation. It represented the triumph of democracy, for Ouattara had won Ivory Coast's first free and fair election in a decade, only to be barred from office by the outgoing president who didn't want to cede power.
Ouattara was only able to remove ex-president Laurent Gbagbo after he enlisted the help of a rebel army which swept across this nation on Africa's western coast, seizing control of every town in its path. The question now is whether Ouattara is able to control the men who control his country, and without whom he wouldn't have been able to take office.
Ouattara has pledged to investigate the killings of thousands of people during the war on both sides. Even after the war, however, Ouattara's forces have killed at least 500 people, according to human rights groups. And he seems powerless to stop them, or even acknowledge what they are doing.
"You make all these deals with the devil — and then what? In so many ways it's now out of Ouattara's hands," said Yale anthropologist Mike McGovern, author of a book on Ivory Coast's political crisis. "He needs to go after these guys. But if he does the right thing, he could pay with his life."
The story of the massacre, reported here for the first time, gives a window into the growing disconnect between Ouattara's promises and the reality on the ground. It also shows how far this French-speaking nation of 21 million people has fallen from its days of prosperity, when it boasted skyscrapers, multiplexes, jet ski competitions and the only ice rink in sub-Saharan Africa.
It's not easy to reach the banks of this river, a ribbon of opaque water that marks the border with neighboring Liberia. It's a one- to two-day walk from Blolequin, the nearest town on the Ivorian side, on trails that slice through a jungle so thick you can't see more than a few yards in either direction.
This is Gbagbo land. And as the Ouattara rebels approached in March, tens of thousands of Gbagbo supporters fled across the river in dugout canoes to Liberia.
Nearly all of them were Guere, an ethnic group so closely associated with the former president that just being able to speak the language is synonymous with having voted for him. Most were civilians but mixed with them were also people who had killed for Gbagbo, including members of his feared militia.
Ouattara's forces arrested Gbagbo on April 11. In his subsequent address to the nation, the president welcomed a new era of hope, and his ambassador declared the nightmare in the Ivory Coast over.
While life slowly resumed in the rest of the country, in the west, where two-thirds of the population had voted for Gbagbo, villages remained empty. The bodies of the dead clogged wells. Piles of bleached bones marked execution spots.
On the road to Blolequin, Ouattara's soldiers caught an old man who had helped campaign for Gbagbo. They cut off his head, mounted it on a stake, and placed sunglasses over the eyes and a cigarette in the decomposing mouth.
A month after Gbagbo's arrest, there were still 175,857 refugees in Liberia. Ouattara sent the head of the rebel army, Guillaume Soro, who is now Ouattara's prime minister, to ask them to return. Soro said that the ousted president Gbagbo was being fed so well under house arrest that he had put on 11 pounds.
The refugees have nothing to fear, he said, promising that "any refugee that returns can also expect to gain 5 kilos (11 pounds)."
As Ouattara's May 21 inauguration approached, a small number of people had started trickling back, encouraged by the message of reconciliation. On the eve of the inauguration, dozens of people had set up camp in a clearing less than 1.5 miles from the river. They figured they could run and reach the river in time if they were spotted.
In the hour before the attack, the field abounded with village life. Laundry lay out to dry on the grass. Chickens ran freely. Each family set up a cooking area, using a triangle of stones as a stove. Rice boiled on several fires, and men gathered bright orange fruit from the base of palm trees to make the region's signature dish.
Several people said they heard Ouattara's speech on handheld radios. He vowed to be a leader for all of Ivory Coast, saying: "This ceremony today is not about the victory of one side over another."
There was no warning.
The shooting started at 7, maybe 8 p.m. It was still light out. People jumped to their feet, dropping plates and spoons. Young mothers scrambled to tie their children onto their backs as toddlers wailed. The 1.5 miles to the river proved to be too long for those least able to protect themselves.
Alexis Lony was helping his family prepare dinner and had just put the water to boil. The 23-year-old yelled at his mother to run, dove to the ground and fought his way through the thorny undergrowth, even as it slashed his skin.
He says he lay flat on his stomach under a cascading tangle of foliage and saw them grab his mother. They hit her, and she fell at the base of a banana tree.
The soldiers swarmed the clearing. Among the last to flee was the adult son of Amelie Vlonhou, a disabled woman. Vlonhou, 43, had been paralyzed since birth, and her family had pooled funds to buy her a rarity in this part of the world — a wheelchair. In Keibly, a village just outside Blolequin, she had wheeled herself from hut to hut to braid women's hair, making enough of a living to support herself and her son.
He tried to push her toward the trail, but panicked when the wheelchair got stuck on the uneven ground. He ducked and ran, leaving her. She lowered herself onto the forest floor, says Lony, and tried to drag herself into the vegetation.
But she couldn't pull in her paralyzed legs. They stuck out of the foliage. The soldiers dragged her back as she sobbed and tried to hold on to the dirt.
Capt. Eddie Mindi, Ouattara's regional commander for western Ivory Coast, acknowledges that he sent around 25 soldiers to the banks of the river, but from there the stories diverge.
He says he received reports that Gbagbo's mercenaries were amassing at the water and planning to disrupt the inauguration. He ordered his men to leave Blolequin the morning of May 22 on foot. They reached the site by evening. The mercenaries opened fire with rocket launchers first, he says, and his men returned fire in self-defense. He denies that most of the dead were civilians.
Ivory Coast started down the path that would culminate in this violence more than two decades ago, around the time the country became the world's top exporter of cocoa. The country's liberal land-owning policy lured millions of immigrants, many of them Muslim and from Burkina Faso, like Ouattara's forefathers.
When cocoa prices crashed in the 1980s, they were chased off the land they had bought. A wave of xenophobia washed over the country and in 1995 and 2000, Ouattara was disqualified from running in the presidential election over accusations he was not really Ivorian. His supporters were barred from getting voter identity cards.
The resentment boiled over in a 2002 civil war led by Muslim rebels many of whom were the children of immigrants who had lost their land. When these same rebels made it to the trail here in the heart of cocoa country, there was a history of grievances going back as far as anyone could remember.
The trail to the water leaves the clearing through a narrow mouth, and enters an abandoned grove of cocoa trees. If you close your eyes, the insects sound like television static.
One group of soldiers stayed in the clearing, while a second pushed the wheelbarrow mounted with the machine gun down the trail. When they saw the foliage move, they hacked their way into the vegetation, pointing flashlights.
Around a quarter of the way down, they caught up with a man in his 80s with a bad knee, hobbling as fast as he could.
They tied a rope around his neck and pulled him along, at one point passing a green log on the side of the trail. David Dia was lying flat next to that log, his body cupped around its underside.
"The old man was screaming in Guere, 'They're going to kill me. This is the last day of my life.' They had put a rope around his neck and were telling him he needed to lead them to the crossing point," says Dia, who is 25.
At the river's edge, the shooting was getting closer and closer. People started throwing themselves through the wall of branches, bushes and thorn-laced vines that lined the side of the stream. Others jumped in, even though they didn't know how to swim. Their open mouths filled with water as they tried to scream.
The troops put the wheelbarrow next to the river and sprayed the water with machine-gun fire. As night fell, soldiers stayed on the river's edge, scanning the water with the flashlights for people. At some point, they untied the rope from around the old man's neck and slit his throat.
Those hiding in the bush didn't sleep that night. Mothers kept their hands over babies' mouths. They hid in the folds of trees, and on their stomachs under blankets of brambles.
In the morning, the soldiers set fire to the camp. They left single-file. For hours all you could hear was a tropical bird, whose sharp call sounded like the repetitive beeping of a hotel alarm clock.
Four days after the massacre, a group of survivors, including relatives of the dead, agreed to return from Liberia with The Associated Press. The trek took 3 1/2 hours, first by motorcycle and then on foot.
The trail leaves the water and weaves uphill. The vegetation is thick with the smell of death, and the people walking through covered their noses with their T-shirts. They walked in silence, afraid to run into Ouattara's soldiers.
They saw five bodies, including that of the 80-year-old man under a fresh mound of dirt, just next to where the canoes dock. It's impossible to know exactly how many more drowned, and how many others were killed in a second camp higher up the trail that could not be reached.
The objects strewn along the trail, including more than two dozen identity cards, indicate that many of those who fled were women, not combatants.
A set of hair extensions is wedged in the mud. So is a woman's wig. A set of eyeliners of different colors, and a baby's bib. In one spot, a bra is snagged between two branches.
Rose Toulo ran for her life here. Along the way, she dropped her birth certificate, issued by the General Hospital of Blolequin. Here too is the tetanus shot form of a woman named Catherine Kokan. And the identity card of Josephine Gbo, born in 1948. She is — or was — 63 years old.
Among the documents left behind in the exodus is a voter identity card with serial number 06260101 0182643. It belonged to Vlonhou, Amelie. It says she was born in Keibly in 1968.
It's not near her body, but around a half-mile down the trail. It was in that direction her adult son ran when he left his mother.
The bodies were still there when the AP reached the clearing.
The huts are burned to the ground. All that is left are the mud walls. A wheelchair sits in the middle of the camp, one wheel askew.
Pots lie on their sides, half-boiled rice sticking out like a tongue. There's a basket of the orange palm fruit, and a spoon half-filled with what could have been someone's last bite. There's also an unused tea bag, out of its wrapper, as if someone was getting ready to prepare a cup of tea when they dropped everything and ran.
The women died where the soldiers left them, on their backs, naked from the waist down, with their legs parted open. Lony's mother is underneath the banana tree wearing only a white T-shirt. Her back is arched, as if yanking away from the pain.
Vlonhou was dragged to one of the huts. Her orange sarong is hiked above her waist.
She died with what looks like a plastic bag stuffed inside her mouth. Her mouth is open, permanently fixed in a scream.
Associated Press Writer Jonathan Paye-Layleh contributed to this report from Monrovia, Liberia.
EDITOR'S NOTE — This story is based on interviews with 12 survivors of the May 22 massacre whom the AP met in refugee camps near Zwedru, Liberia; their relatives; refugee advocates; human rights groups and local officials. A group of survivors accompanied an AP reporter and photographer to the site of the massacre on May 26, where the AP photographed the bodies strewn on the trail. The AP also interviewed at least 50 villagers who have returned to their homes in western Ivory Coast.