In a major step forward in the implementation of a peace deal signed between the government of Côte d’Ivoire and rebels last month, work has started on dismantling the buffer zone which has divided the country’s rebel-held north and government-controlled south for almost four years.
The buffer zone was established after a brief civil war that erupted after a failed coup in September 2002. It was set up by the United Nations Security Council, which used French troops and UN Peacekeepers to keep government loyalists and rebels apart.
“For us, the dismantling of the buffer zone is a great day. Our people have not been moving freely as they had wished. Some of them were victims of violence. Today a new day has started which is the end of their suffering,” President Laurent Gbagbo said on Wednesday at a ceremony in Tiebissou, 250km north of the main economic centre, Abidjan. As he spoke, white bulldozers smashed through wooden guard posts.
Since the country was divided, aid agencies have warned of a serious deterioration in the north as basic services such as schools, water and sanitation facilities, and health centres that used to be maintained by the government have deteriorated.
Many of the local people milling around at Wednesday’s ceremony came from villages formerly inside the 12,000 sq. km buffer zone.
“We were in a no-man’s land where there was no local authority,” said farmer Desire Kouassi. “When the night fell, we were left in the hands of highwaymen and bandits because the impartial forces controlling the buffer zone were not effective in providing security. I think now security will be arranged.”
Blaise Gouan, a village leader, said: “During the four years our parents only drank from rivers. Health centres were not functioning and only some interventions were made by the French troops.”
Also this week, President Gbagbo signed a law granting a general amnesty for crimes committed during the crisis. Sanctioned by the recent peace accord, the amnesty applies to both rebels and loyal government troops.
Prime Minister Guillaume Soro, a former rebel leader appointed as prime minister in late March, has assured Ivorians that peace is sealed.
“We are getting out of fighting. We did it for five years without results. We wounded, beat up and killed ourselves without results,” he said.
Gbagbo said the next step in the peace process would be organising presidential elections, which according to the terms of the peace deal must happen before the end of the year. Disarmament and the identification of undocumented Ivorians are two other crucial steps to be taken before the polls.