This Valentine's Day, little to savor in land of sweets

Relationships are strained and chocolate prices are soaring as the civil war drags on in Ivory Coast, the world's largest cocoa producer.

Rebel leader Guillaume Soro has no big Valentine's Day plans. His girlfriend just left him - she was tired of sharing him with his revolutionaries, fed up with his travels to peace talks in Paris, and generally unimpressed by his priorities.

"I am so busy with the cause," shrugs Mr. Soro in Bouaké, where rebels have set up headquarters since their attempted coup five months ago. "I never brought her flowers, forgot to call - the usual."

This year, Valentine's Day in war-torn Ivory Coast is shaping up to be a sad affair. The world's largest cocoa producer, where many of Cupid's sweet treats originate, "is less able to focus on chocolate hearts than ever before," explains Cladice Abouke, a salesgirl at the Cap Sud mall in Abidjan.

Ms. Abouke, who sells heart-shaped watches in Ivory Coast's commercial capital, was doing a brisk business this time last year. "The problem now is money," she says. "Everyone still wants to buy their sweetie a heart-shaped watch. But because of the war, they have to spend their money on other things, like cooking oil."

Since Sept. 19, when dissident soldiers tried to oust President Laurent Gbagbo, the country has been partitioned. As many as 5,000 people have been killed and more than a million displaced. A tenuous peace agreement was reached in Paris last month, but yesterday, rebels said they would march on Abidjan Monday if they didn't receive appointments to the unity government.

Five years ago, says shopper Guy Herve Konan Koffi, Ivorians probably would not have been too interested in heart-shaped watches. In fact, it's likely they wouldn't have heard of Valentine's Day. But that was before the holiday made it onto the Ivory Coast social calendar via local "Radio Nostalgie," and took on a life of its own.

"Europeans are more romantic than Africans," says Mr. Koffi, picking out Parisian perfume for his girlfriend at the Sococe supermarket across town. "But we are catching on."

An aisle away, Marie-Chantal Zauret is looking for a special something for her man. "In these hard times, we need more love and comfort," she says, wandering down the candy section. She bypasses the Swiss chocolate bars, looking for a heart-shaped box. None found, she opts for a T-shirt instead. Chocolate is rather expensive, anyway.

And it might well get even more so. Much of the cocoa in the chocolate on the shelves here, as in supermarkets all around the world, comes from Ivory Coast, which produces nearly half the world's supply. So far, the civil war - which has made transport of cocoa from the northern plantations to the ports of Abidjan and San Pedro dangerous and expensive - has not affected the worlds price of chocolate much. Cocoa makes up only a portion of the finished product, and this year's production is being made with last year's stock.

But, warns Jacques Sylla, a cocoa exporter in Abidjan, the longer this war lasts, the more it's going to hurt the larger chocolate market.

"The world might not be paying attention to the crisis here now," he says. "But just wait. I predict your favorite crunchy bars' prices are only going up."

Abidjan's Hotel Ivoire, in its glory days, was the place to be in West Africa for Valentine's Day, says "J," a Canadian of Lebanese descent who asked not to be identified by name. Couples would do the cha-cha on the terrace overlooking the lagoon, gamble the night away in the high-stakes casino, or skate hand-in-hand across the ice rink.

Today, the hotel is a shadow of its former self. The rink has melted, the adjacent bowling alley is boarded up, the Olympic-size swimming pool is filled with leaves and murky water, and the marble ballrooms are empty. Mercenaries, like "J," here to help President Gbagbo in his war against the rebels, dine alone in the piano bar.

"I have lost so many girls because of war," he complains, tucking into a mango and papaya dessert.

"Me too," sighs "V," a Bulgarian helicopter pilot in a similar line of business, sitting nearby with a faraway gaze. "Valentine's Day now means nothing to me. Nothing."

Back in Bouaké, a young rebel named Abu Yeo is guarding the road with French-made bolt-action rifle. He wears white plastic sandals, army pants, and a fake blue Lacoste T-shirt.

His longtime girlfriend, Kafine Kone, is home with her parents in Korhogo, a city further north.

"We are madly in love," he says.

In her last letter, she told him she wanted to marry him "after he saved the Ivory Coast." But meanwhile, long distance is rough. He has no money for a Valentine's gift, or even a stamp with which to send a letter. He has a lot else on his mind, anyway.

"I want to marry her, too," he says, sweating profusely and looking glum. "But I need to defend my country, and unfortunately, this is more important now."

"Hopefully next year, things will be better," concludes rebel leader Mr. Soro. "Then we can move on to all those things in life sweeter than war."

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