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APRIL 4, 2011 3:29PM

Abidjan: One Uncounted Death

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Zoumana Koné nicknamed Chékoroba (Old Man)

1985 - 2011


            Old Man was the one we all worried about. He was stuck in Abobo, the neighborhood Gbagbo’s militias targeted and terrorized. The running water and electricity were often cut off and he couldn’t charge his cellphone. When I did get through, Old Man told me softly that life was difficult in Abobo. So difficult. He had not gone outside for two weeks. There was shooting every night and even during the day. You never knew when it would start. During the shooting, he stayed in his room. But sometimes, when the shooting stopped, there were bodies in the street.

            He was sensitive by nature and far from his family, and I could hear the strain in his voice. “I can’t go to school,” he said. He sounded sad, wistful, but also apologetic, probably because we were helping to finance his education. I told him he should stay home; there would be time for school later. “You are witnessing the history of your country as it happens,” I told him. It was the sort of serious idea he liked and he promised to tell me everything in detail the next time I visited.           

            Chékoroba, which means Old Man in Dyula, was a family nickname because he was named after his grandfather. Old Man was in fact a young man, but a serious, thoughtful one, and he chose his words carefully, which made him sound older than he was. He was exactly the same age as my son, twenty-six. Same cohort, his father liked to say. His father and mother have been our friends for thirty years. But our son had graduated from college by the time Old Man was able to start last year.

            Last Thursday when I called, Old Man answered. The fighting had moved to other areas of Abidjan, and Abobo was finally calm. The electricity was back on. He told me that he had been sick but was better. He had talked to his younger brother across town and heard that I had managed to get some money to his father for the two of them. When his father was able to send the money, he said, he was going to buy a bus ticket and go home to Korhogo. He was worn out with living in a war zone and being sick. He just wanted to be home with his family.

            In just one more week, I replied, there should be peace. Then we can get the money to you and it will be safe for you to travel. I thought that once he was home where it was calm, and eating well again, he would be fine.

            But on Saturday, Old Man suddenly got much worse. He was having trouble breathing. The family he lives with took him to the Red Cross clinic in Abobo. The Red Cross said he needed to go to the hospital across town. But with the battle for Abidjan raging, it was too dangerous. His father called to tell me the worst of all possible news. Saturday night Old Man died.           

            Everyone is crying here, his father said, as we cried across the scratchy phone line, not only the family, but also all the neighborhood children that he tutored over the years.            

            His father was not able to go south for his son’s funeral. Even his younger brother could not cross Abidjan to attend. Although the fighting was concentrated in a few places, the rest of the city was in chaos.

            The family he had been living with notified the pro-Ouattara soldiers that control Abobo, and four soldiers came with a dump truck, the kind used to transport sand. Since the cemetery of Abobo was closed, they took them to a cemetery in Anyama. Another family also made the journey, to bury a member of their family. Escorted by the armed soldiers, they had no problems going through the barricades.

            As they buried Old Man Sunday, they could hear the shooting downtown in Plateau, where soldiers were battling for control of the Presidential Palace. In the north, his family gathered in their beaten earth courtyard in Korhogo to say the Muslim prayers.

            The Red Cross is appealing to the population of Abidjan and the fighters on both sides to let it continue its work so that it can save the lives of hundreds of people—those who are seriously wounded, gravely ill, pregnant women, and people who can’t get access to food or water. The official number of people killed in the violence is terribly high, but the actual number is much higher. One of those uncounted is a young man I have known his entire life, a young man who was bright, hard-working, and full of sweetness and promise.

            The last time I saw Chékoroba was on a Sunday in late October. He was wearing his school uniform—black pants a little too short, white shirt, bright red tie. He and his brother met me for Sunday lunch, and while we worked our way through a platter of roasted chicken at an outdoor restaurant, he told me proudly how much he was learning in his computer science classes. He had to leave the house every morning at five-thirty to cross the sprawling city by bus and he rarely returned before six or seven in the evening. There were only a few computers at the school, but now that he was starting his second year, he would get a chance to work on them. I worried that he was working so hard to learn what children in wealthier countries learn in elementary school, but he was delighted with his program and hopeful that when he graduated, he would find work and be able to help his family.

            Ala den balo, his mother and I say to each other each time we part. May God keep your children alive. Amina, we both reply. Now across the mysterious cellphone network that connects our voices, I had to offer the blessing you never want to say about your friends’ child: Ala ka hinara. May he go to heaven. His father, the person who thirty years ago taught me to say this, replied in a broken voice, Amina.


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I had to read a few sentences and scroll back up to look at that beautiful face again and again and again.
I am so HONORED that you are writing these blogs, here, and also thank the editors for featuring them.
What can I say? Thank you, truly. All of this information combined with your personal stories make it all alive.
But this time I wish I could offer words of comfort to you, who are writing your heart out to us. I am so, so sorry. I know it's not enough.
Lovely writing and photo! Thank you for sharing what must be painful with us. Often violence in the world can seem remote, but you have brought it home for the reader in a way that a news story never could.
This is heartbreaking. Thank you for sharing this.
I think Chékoroba has just been counted. Heartbreaking.
I just read a post by an OS blogger by the name of Zomi Lison regarding Cote D'Ivoire and it is from a very different perspective than what we are used to hearing in the Western media. You should take a look at it and let us know your thoughts. I am not familiar enough with the internally politics of the country to know what the truth is, but I suspect it is not as black and white as our media would have us believe.
Thank you for sharing this heartfelt story......it moved me.....and the picture is beautiful.....Your writing is excellent, and I realize it must have been hard to write this piece..........Rated.
What a beautiful young man with an ancient spirit. I feel your heartbreak and his family's. I have spent a lot of time in Mozambique where the greatest honor is to be named after one's grandfather. Old man was pure of heart and seems he had accomplished all that he needed to before being called home to the ancestors. Still, this does not diminish the loss of his possibility and the tragic circumstances under which a pure, bright flame was extinguished. Thank you for sharing him with us. I hope his family realizes how many people around the world his life has now touched.
What a beautiful young man with an ancient spirit. I feel your heartbreak and his family's. I have spent a lot of time in Mozambique where the greatest honor is to be named after one's grandfather. Old man was pure of heart and seems he had accomplished all that he needed to before being called home to the ancestors. Still, this does not diminish the loss of his possibility and the tragic circumstances under which a pure, bright flame was extinguished. Thank you for sharing him with us. I hope his family realizes how many people around the world his life has now touched.
Thank you for sharing the story of this beautiful young man and his family. He is not forgotten. The story unfolded in a sensitive quiet manner, like the young man himself. -Best, Erica
It is heartbreaking, and mind-numbing, to reflect on the conditions many people have to live with. Thank you for writing this tribute to a wonderful young man.
Thanks so much to everyone who has commented. I have saved the screen and will translate your comments to Chékoroba's family the next time I am able to go to Côte d'Ivoire.

To Alaska Progressive--some Ivorians contacted me and said that my writing was biased because I have spent time in the north. They wanted to discuss it. I urged them to get a blog on Open Salon so that we could have the discussion openly and other people could read it. I just read Zomi Lison's post, Digging Deeper. There are many factual errors in it. It proposes a pro-Gbagbo-biased account of Ivorian political history, an account no historian or political scientist of integrity would endorse.

Some of my earlier posts explain a little more about the post-electoral crisis. However, my point of view and the US State Dept position (we are in the right corner on this one) are in line with the UN, the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch, etc. The only people who see the election differently are Gbagbo's hardline supporters and his supporters in the Christian Right in the US (see the recent Salon article about Sen. Inhofe and the CBN). The election was the third in the world (after East Timor and Nepal) to be UN-certified but Gbagbo refused to concede. His refusal to accept the election results has set the country back years economically, educationally, and in terms of relations between communities.

I could write a post countering each of Zomi Lison's points and I would be able to verify my statements.

For good reporting on Ivory Coast in English, try Al Jazeera English, Reuters, or the BBC. If you read French, abidjan.net. The NY Times has also had a good series by Adam Nossiter. And finally, as I said, the Salon article about the Christian Right's support of Gbagbo is excellent and I highly recommend it. No one else seems to have covered this. You can find it here http://www.salon.com/news/politics/war_room/2011/03/30/ivory_coast_christian_right_gbagbo/index.html

If you would like to see my coverage of the first round of the election you can find it at my blog, onevillagevotes.blogspot.com. Thanks for your interest.
Oh, I'm so very sorry. So very sad.
Carol, thank you for putting a face on the loss taking place in Ivory Coast. Your sensitive and forceful portrait of "Old Man" is both moving and heartbreaking. Could you ever have imagined that thirty years after meeting his parents that it would come to this?
Dear hk,

Your question really made me think. When I left Ivory Coast thirty years ago, after living in a village for a year, I honestly and naively believed that my neighbors' lives would get easier. And I firmly and naively believed that their childrens' lives would be much easier still. Even though the north was much poorer than the south, the country was stable and people's incomes were going up. Of course, I could not have predicted HIV. Or political unrest as the country tried to transition to multi-party democracy. But I also just had no idea how very hard it is to move out of poverty. It's something I think about a lot. Thanks for asking that question.