Ivorian Group Barricaded Near Battle

Date Posted: 4/7/2011

Bishop Benjamin Boni and others were locked inside the United Methodist radio station building in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, on April 6, as fighting continued around the presidential palace nearby.

The head of The United Methodist Church in Côte d’Ivoire had taken shelter in the lower level of the building, which is on the same compound as the bishop’s residence, regional church offices and Jubilee United Methodist Church.

The station is about five minutes’ drive from the presidential residence, where forces supporting the internationally recognized president of Côte d’Ivoire were battling to oust the incumbent president, who has refused to relinquish power since losing an election last November.

Boni, his family and other church leaders were joined by several people who sought refuge at Jubilee. Everyone was believed to be safe, said an assistant to the bishop, who asked not to be named.

“The (fight) has ceased,” the assistant said, in the early afternoon, local time. “They are told that they cannot leave, but there are no more shots going on.

“We are under curfew,” he explained. “Right now it’s a risk to try to walk somewhere else unless the U.N. or the French forces come to pick you up.”

He was trying to reach someone with the U.S. embassy or the United Nations to see about getting the bishop to a safer location but had been unsuccessful.

City short on supplies

Fighting has raged around the presidential palace and other locations held by Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent Ivorian leader, since last week. Forces loyal to Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized victor in the Nov. 28 election, control most of the city of Abidjan and the rest of the country.

Gbagbo’s top military officers have directed their soldiers to quit fighting, but forces loyal to Gbagbo have continued to resist the pro-Ouattara Republican Forces of Côte d’Ivoire. Gbagbo was reported to be in a bunker at his residence. Negotiations for his departure had broken off today, and pro-Ouattara forces were said to be preparing an assault.

French and U.N. forces joined the battle in recent days in an attempt to oust Gbagbo, and parts of the presidential residence were reportedly burning.

The bishop’s assistant did not know how many people were in the radio station building with Boni.

Some of the people who had sought refuge at Jubilee were women supporters of Gbagbo who had been out on the streets near the presidential residence and been fired upon. “So they have been sleeping there (at the church) for the past four days,” the assistant said.

Boni’s group had limited provisions. “They are very short on food and supplies,” he said. “They have (enough) to go for two or three days more.”

Food, fuel and other basic necessities are short in Abidjan, the commercial capital and largest city in Côte d’Ivoire.

“It’s getting worse every day,” the bishop’s assistant said. “Lots of people are real tired (of) staying home every day. We are really, really tired of this situation.”

The radio station, known as The Voice of Hope, has continued broadcasting programmed music.

Prayer and relief efforts

The United Methodist Committee on Relief has provided two emergency relief grants totaling $40,000 to help the church’s Côte d’Ivoire Conference provide help to displaced people and to feed children. Half of the funds were provided by the denomination’s Texas Annual (regional) Conference, which has a covenant relationship with the church in Côte d’Ivoire.

The Rev. Cynthia Fierro Harvey, head of UMCOR, called for prayer support for Côte d’Ivoire.

“If ever there was a time to pray, this is it,” she said in an April 6 UMCOR story. “Pray for a quick resolution, one that can bring peace.”

UMCOR is ready to provide humanitarian relief when the conflict is over, said Harvey, who has traveled to the West African country more than a half-dozen times in the past three years.

“Our real work is going to start when this conflict ends,” she said.

Donations to support UMCOR’s work in Côte d’Ivoire can be made to International Disaster Response, UMCOR Advance #982450, and earmarked for “Côte d’Ivoire Crisis.” They can be given online.

*Tanton is executive director of content for United Methodist Communications.