ABIDJAN: Amade Oueremi (right), a former warlord accused of mass killings in western Ivory Coast in 2011, arrives under police escort at the high court for his trial in Abidjan.-AFP

ABIDJAN: Odette Klahon took the witness stand, her burgundy red wrap a sign of mourning, then recounted the violence a decade ago that left her without her husband, her grandson and her left hand. “In the Carrefour neighborhood, they didn’t waste any time, breaking down doors, looking for able-bodied men,” the woman in her 60s said Thursday with the help of a translator, describing where she lived in the city of Duekoue in western Ivory Coast. “It was during those troubles that my husband was arrested and executed in front of me.”

She went on to describe how her “executioner” overcame her resistance to taking her four-year-old grandson, knocking the boy unconscious with a piece of wood and shooting Klahon’s hand. “My grandson died on the spot and I was able to flee to find safety with the town’s Catholic mission, my hand in blood and crossing bodies,” she said, adding that her hand was later amputated. Klahon’s testimony came in the trial of former militia chief Amade Oueremi, in the dock over massacres carried out in Duekoue in 2011 in the wake of the country’s disputed presidential election.

Duekoue was the scene of the region’s worst massacres during a post-election crisis in 2010-2011. Known as “The Lord”, the 57-year-old’s trial began on March 24 in an Abidjan court on accusations of mass murder. He faces a maximum penalty of life in prison. Oueremi was head of a militia that fought against rival groups and forces loyal to ex-president Laurent Gbagbo and says they were acting in self-defense. The accusations particularly involve violence on March 28, 2011 in Duekoue’s Carrefour neighborhood, where 817 people were killed in one day, according to the Red Cross. The United Nations has put the toll at 300.

Gbagbo was eventually forced out of office after refusing to accept his defeat by the current president, Alassane Ouattara. The months-long conflict claimed some 3,000 lives and split the country along north-south lines. The former president was tried at the International Criminal Court but acquitted-a decision upheld on March 31, paving the way for Gbagbo to return to his home country. Meanwhile, Oueremi awaits his fate in Abidjan.

‘Gunfire everywhere’
Another witness in his trial, Myriam Koulade, spoke of the horror she faced. “We heard gunfire everywhere,” she said. “We were among 40 people in our house to take shelter from the shooting.” The next morning, on March 29, 2011, “they began to enter the houses looking for men and making threats: ‘We’re going to kill your husbands and leave with you. You will be our wives.'” She said the neighbourhood was locked down by armed men wearing charms, with businesses being looted and homes being burned.

While going to seek refuge at the Catholic mission, her 54-year-old husband Bakoue Leon was killed “before my eyes” along with her nephew, she said. The two women were among nine testifying, describing bodies strewn throughout the neighborhood and accusing Oueremi’s men, who they said were armed with Kalashnikov rifles, machetes and sickles, their faces painted black. Western Ivory Coast, a major cocoa-producing area, was one of the flashpoints of the post-electoral crisis in 2010-2011.

According to the UN and other international organizations, the March 2011 takeover of Duekoue by pro-Ouattara forces was accompanied by large-scale massacres. The political crisis came against a backdrop of land disputes and led to communal violence between the pro-Gbagbo Gueres ethnic group and other residents, including Dyulas from the mostly pro-Ouattara north and Burkinabe immigrants.

With a protective mask over his mouth, a worn t-shirt, black pants and sandals, Oueremie expressed surprise at being alone in the dock. “I can’t pay for others alone. I was an element of the FRCI (rebel forces that took the city),” he said. “We were fighting Liberians and pro-Gbagbo militias who were sowing terror in the area. They killed us and we also killed them in their homes.” – AFP