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In war, even the winners are losers

Andrew Harding | 12:05 UK time, Saturday, 9 April 2011

Monsieur Gogbo pours himself another generous, early morning glug of French table wine and sits back in his chair to listen to the distant boom of explosions in Abidjan.

"Power corrupts," he says, pensively.

As if on cue, 10 men with guns push through the front gates and demand the keys to our car. We plead and protest and to our surprise they relent and leave empty handed.

We've been staying at Mr Gogbo's dilapidated hotel on the edge of the city for a few days now. His wife and children are trapped by the fighting, but he says they're fine, and besides, his girlfriend is here to look after the cooking.

Mr Gogbo is a retired petrol station manager. He seems to spend his days surrounded by chickens, at a table in the yard, drinking with workers from the nearby quarry.

The quarry is closed - like most things in Ivory Coast right now. The inn sits right next to a grand four-lane highway. But hours can pass without a single car driving by.

You get a glimpse of how impressive this country once was and how far it's fallen.
We drove here, across the northern border, from Mali. Twenty-nine hours in all, a flat tyre, a broken radiator, a wheel falling off, 80-odd roadblocks and a terrified driver who abandoned us in the middle of the night.

Halfway through the country the official capital Yamoussoukro leaps - improbably - out of the lush countryside. The city has avenues the size of runways, monumental architecture a la Pyongyang, and a record-breaking basilica bigger than St. Peter's in Rome.

"Perhaps you'd care for a drink?" Augustin Thiam is preparing to host a small lunch party in the marquee on his lawn. It's days since the capital was captured, without a fight, by the forces of the elected President Alassane Ouattara.

"Thank God," says Mr Thiam, a suave tribal leader. He has no time for the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo. "A bad example for Africa," he tuts. "And bad example for the world."

We're in a rush, and drive on - making a detour west.

The tall undergrowth chews at the crumbling tarmac from both sides. The roadblocks become more frequent and more uncomfortable. We pass through empty, burnt-out villages. There are prisoners - one crouched in a petrol station forecourt, looking terrified. Another group is being held at gunpoint in some bushes by the roadside. We decide not to stop.

The soldiers here are a mixed bunch - some well trained, and in regular uniforms. Others in rags, clutching old hunting rifles, and demanding cash.

There's been a massacre in the town of Duekoue. Several hundred dead, maybe as many as a thousand.

The numbers and the blame are being bitterly questioned on all sides. But a familiar equation is at work here - communal tensions, plus inflammatory rhetoric, and undisciplined militia groups, equals trouble.

A United Nations soldier, from Morocco, is guarding some volunteers as they hunt for bodies. They've been at it for five days. I ask how many dead children so far. He holds up four fingers and sobs heavily, into his facemask.

The road on towards Abidjan turns into a highway, and the roadblocks disappear. But so do the cars. And the people. It's too quiet. I start to miss being waved down by men with guns.

We pass Monsieur Gogbo's hotel and a few minutes later arrive on the edge of the city.

A year ago, I came to Abidjan ahead of the World Cup to make a film about Ivory Coast's remarkable track-record of producing football stars. People were a little nervous about the upcoming presidential election but most seemed to think it would solve more problems than it created.

Instead, a year on, I'm driving into a ghost town. We pass under a bridge and the smell of corpses wafts through the car. Gunfire rattles somewhere off to the right. We stop at a petrol station that's been turned into a military camp with soldiers collapsed in the shade. Lots of dented cars - probably confiscated, like ours nearly was. There's a dead body, wedged awkwardly in the back of one of them. And in the car wash, well over a hundred prisoners sit and sweat in the midday heat. All young men, seized, quite probably at random, by troops anxious to crack down on the militia groups that are still causing havoc across the city.

The conflict here is winding down, but slowly. Laurent Gbagbo chose - with staggering self-regard - to make his final stand in the most heavily populated corner of the country.
So, it looks like you've won, I say, to a colonel, sitting in the garage next to the unleaded petrol pump. He frowns. I know war, he says. Even the winners are losers.

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