In Ivory Coast, 'foreign' farmers reap bitter harvest

Government troops attacked a rebel-held city Monday, as nationalist zeal sweeps the country.

Lasina Bamba strolls with pride through his cocoa trees, rubber gumboots crackling on a thick blanket of brown leaves. Around him, the cocoa fruits – oblong and grooved like a stretched pumpkin – are turning from green to yellow, a sign that they are nearly ready to be harvested.

But despite the prospect of a robust harvest, Mr. Bamba is worried.

Troubling times have come to Ivory Coast and its cocoa workers, Bamba says, a machete resting on the shoulder of his fading denim jacket. His neighbors have turned against him, saying he is a foreigner who has stolen their land.

"They say they will take the cocoa and chase us from the land," he says sadly of the people he has lived among for almost 40 years. "Life has changed."

Bamba's worries are typical of many who make Ivory Coast the world's largest cocoa producer. Many are guest workers or migrants from the country's north. Most, including Bamba and his family, are Muslims. But the very workers who have helped bring wealth and stability to this West African nation are now the objects of xenophobic zeal. These tensions have exploded in recent weeks, catapulting the country into what is now being called a civil war.

On Monday, government troops launched an all-out onslaught to retake the city of Bouaké from the ex-military rebels who have claimed much of the north since a failed Sept. 19 coup attempt.

The government, which accuses neighboring countries Burkina Faso and Liberia of supporting and financing the three-week-old uprising, has refused to sign a cease-fire agreement with the rebels until they lay down their arms. The Burkinabe and Liberian governments deny any involvement in the fighting, in which hundreds have been killed.

It hasn't always been this way. Thirty-eight years ago, in the first heady days of the Ivory Coast's independence from France, Bamba claimed this 14-acre piece of land and carved a coffee and cocoa plantation from the forest. In those days, he says, with a little hard work anything was possible, even for a poor laborer. Soon, Ivory Coast's economy was booming and Bamba was a rich man.

But now, some local villagers – members of the southern, and mostly Christian, Baoule tribe – want to take his land. They say Bamba and his family, members of the northern Dioula tribe, are not true Ivorians.

Divisions here are a complicated tangle of religious, ethnic, economic, and political tensions. Southern Christians, mainly of the Baoule and Bete tribes, have long controlled most of the country's economic wealth and political power. Dioula tribe members and many of the foreign workers who keep the farms going say they are increasingly treated as outsiders.

An estimated 5 million foreigners and nearly 100,000 refugees live here in Ivory Coast, which has the region's second-largest economy behind Nigeria. Many, like Brahima Sanogo, a laborer on Bamba's farm, work in agriculture for wages few Ivorians would accept. Though he has lived here all his life, Mr. Sanogo was born to Malian parents and is still seen as a foreigner.

"When we want to travel, the police ask for our papers. And if your papers say you are a foreigner, they ask for money," Sanogo says. "Sometimes it's 10,000 [Central African francs], sometimes 15,000." For Sanogo, who makes only 125,000 francs (about $200) a year, this amounts to a month's salary.

Since the attempted coup, pro-government media in the south have unleashed a barrage of xenophobic propaganda, blaming northerners, foreigners, and even the international press for the recent troubles. In Abidjan, the commercial capital, thousands of immigrants have been displaced as government militias burn the shantytowns where they live. The country's minister of human rights defends the razing of the ghettos, saying they are being cleared for safety and that no particular group is being targeted.

But Gloria Blamah, a Liberian refugee whose shack was burned nearly three weeks ago, says she no longer feels safe as an immigrant in Ivory Coast. Ms. Blamah was nearly nine months pregnant when gendarmes came to her house at 4 a.m., telling her to leave quickly before they set it on fire. She says all the men in the neighborhood were rounded up, stripped, and beaten by the police.

"We are not safe here now," she says from a United Nations safe house in Abidjan. "They don't like foreigners."

Immigrants and northerners are increasingly intimidated by the surge of aggressive patriotism in Ivory Coast's government-held areas. Sixty miles west of Zaka, in the progovernment town of Daloa, small boys hawk hand-sewn flags to French soldiers and foreign journalists.

People here echo the government's claim that their country's troubles have been exacerbated by foreign involvement. None has yet been proven, but many say they will defend their country against it.

"I would fight for my country," says Wilfred Godji, before being chased away by Ivorian soldiers manning a roadblock outside the city. "We have to protect our country from the people who have come to attack us, from the foreigners who want to take our country."

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