Night falls on Abidjan: Looting, gangs, burning corpses – and hungry people afraid to go out

Daniel Howden reports from the perilous streets of Abidjan, as the conflict in Ivory Coast edges closer to a bloody showdown

The roadblocks begin right outside the airport. Rusted barrels and planks are strewn across side streets, manned by boys in filthy vests. The boys are armed with little more than their own strength in numbers. The looting lends the streets of Abidjan the appearance of an earthquake zone. Burnt-out cars are overturned. Emptied streets are carpeted in smashed glass. What's left on the Tarmac is only what was broken as it was looted.

A line of office furniture reaches as far as a smashed wardrobe and stops. Then the bodies start. At first, the fire seems to be nothing more than a pile of tyres. Then a soldier explains that people have begun to burn the corpses to prevent disease from spreading. Further along, a cloud of stinking black smoke rises from a garishly painted bus stop. A charred leg rises unmistakably out of the flames.

Nearby, an election poster has survived the carnage. Its bright green slogan trumpets Alassane Ouattara and his "Alliance for Change". It is a rare vestige of an election that was meant to cement Ivory Coast's return from murderous conflict, but instead plunged the country back into civil war.

Surveying the wreckage, a master sergeant from France's Force Licorne says that each day is worse than the last. "Until this morning there were a few places that hadn't been looted," he said, pointing at a looted supermarket. "Now everything is gone."

The boys at the roadblocks are not militia; they are not the young patriots called on to the street by Laurent Gbagbo, the leader who refuses to surrender as Abidjan lies in ruins. Nor are they supporters of Mr Ouattara, the man recognised by the rest of the world as the winner of November's elections. "They are self-defence forces from the neighbourhoods [trying] to protect themselves," said the sergeant.

Desperation has eventually drawn some people back on to the street even though the fighting is far from over. At the water's edge in this lagoon city, once known as the Paris of Africa, a handful of people have come out of hiding for long enough to wash.

Water has come to dominate everyone's thinking. Scores of women with jerry cans pad through the debris looking for a water pump that's still working. At the northern edge of the Zone Four district, a sudden crowd announces one tap that still has water. People are fighting over plastic cans, pushing and shoving for a few litres more. The Charles de Gaulle bridge that crosses the lagoon into Abidjan's Plateau district with its tall towers has been among the most dangerous places in the city for the past week. The final stretch into Plateau is done at speed to deter snipers across the river.

But there is little for them to aim at. Peacekeepers in their convoys of armoured vehicles are the only traffic. The French base in the south of the city is getting up to 700 calls a day from people desperate to be evacuated. As long as they have a foreign passport, then someone will heed their call.

Yesterday's muster station was the Novotel, one of west Africa's most popular business hubs prior to the crisis. Its shiny metal and glass lobby seems untouched. At night, though, residents speak of being terrorised by gangs of armed men who push in and demand money, and rob customers.

The riverside restaurant offers a prime view of the dome of the cultural centre across the water where much of the remaining force of Mr Gbagbo's loyalists in the Republican Guard are based. The night before a heavy machine gun had been hauled to the top of one of the tower blocks where it was used to barrage positions in Plateau. French helicopters eventually destroyed it with rockets.

Yesterday dozens of families were huddled in the basement of the hotel, surrounded by heavily armed French soldiers, waiting for transport to the comparative safety of the base. But they weren't the only ones who were afraid. Across the street, behind a tall metal fence, was an Ivorian man who wasn't being rescued. "We haven't been out for four days, now we're on half rations trying to make the food last," he said. There have been armed militiamen roaming up and down the street every day, he added. Watching other families climbing on to army trucks, he said: "It's scaring us to see the foreigners are leaving. Now we're going to be alone out here."

One of the families on the benches in the back of the truck was a teacher at a French high school. "You can ask me if I feel guilty knowing others are left behind, but I have my own priority, which is my wife, my son, and my niece," he said.

The teacher, who refused to give his name, said he'd been registered for evacuation since last Friday. "That was the day the fighting got really heavy," he explained. He realised they would have to leave their Plateau apartment when a shell burst only 30 metres away. They had prepared for a long crisis and filled the freezer, but they hadn't expected things to turn so ugly. Another family from the nearby Cocody district described seeing the street strewn with bodies when the soldiers came to pick them up.

Some 2,000 people are now sheltering at the headquarters of Force Licorne, as the French detachment here is known. Hundreds are arriving, but as many more flee to neighbouring countries aboard military transports.

The teacher wasn't sure when his family was going. "We're going to fly somewhere out of here," he said. Arriving at the gates of a French base only metres away from more improvised roadblocks, a loud military voice announces: "French people off the trucks first, then the others. The others will be sorted later by the foreign ministry."

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