In this photo taken on March 22, 2011, people pay there respects to Imam Souleyman Sissouma and his family at the Bilal Mosque during a funeral service in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Souleymane Sissouma was the third imam slain this month in a wave of anti-Muslim attacks so brutal his surviving family members were too afraid to attend his funeral. At least 10 mosques across Abidjan have been burned, and another was abandoned after attackers threw a grenade through a window during prayers. (AP)
By MARCO CHOWN OVED | AP
Published: Mar 26, 2011 20:42 Updated: Mar 26, 2011 20:42
ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast: Souleymane Sissouma became the third imam slain this month in an attack so brutal his family members went into hiding, too afraid even to attend his funeral.
As dozens of mourners gathered at a mosque, the twisted wreckage of a burned car lay outside — another sign of the growing campaign of violence against Muslims who widely support Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of November’s presidential election.
Ouattara, who is Muslim, is locked in a battle with the entrenched president Laurent Gbagbo for power, and their conflict is veering dangerously toward sectarian violence.
At least 10 mosques across Abidjan have been set ablaze, and another was abandoned after attackers threw a grenade through a window during prayers.
“Us Muslims, we’re not safe. We are the object of every kind of violence. We’re afraid. We don’t know how this is going to end,” said Imam Idriss Koudouss, president of the National Islamic Council. “And we aren’t even involved in politics.” Ouattara supporters also have been beaten to death with bricks, even doused with gasoline and burned alive. Cell phone videos of the horrors are traded on the street and broadcast on state television along with calls to arms.
“It’s the political manipulation of ethnicity,” said Corinne Dufka, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch.
“The root of the conflict is competition for political power and the fault lines are drawn along religious, ethnic and national lines.”
November’s presidential election was supposed to reunite the country after a 2002-2003 civil war split it into a rebel-controlled north and a loyalist south. But when Gbagbo refused to recognize UN-certified results showing that he lost, Ivory Coast was plunged back into a cycle of violence.
The UN says up to 1 million people have fled the fighting and at least 462 people have been killed, though Ouattara’s camp puts the toll at 832. The vast majority of these deaths were Ouattara supporters who were abducted and killed by Gbagbo-allied security forces, human rights groups say.
“We’re afraid. Everyone’s leaving,” said Abdias Goita, a father of two who waited outside the Malian embassy for evacuation Friday. “My brother had his door broken down by pro-Gbagbo militias. He gave them all the money he had — about 200,000 francs ($430) — but they slit his throat anyway.” During the presidential campaign, little was made of the fact that Ouattara would be Ivory Coast’s first Muslim president, drawing much of his support from the north. In the aftermath though, pro-Gbagbo police and militias have been widely accused of targeting Muslims because they are perceived as being defacto Ouattara supporters.
Last week, riot police showed up at Imam Sissouma’s mosque, arresting him and his son and taking the offering box. A fellow imam immediately called the interior minister to plead for their release and thought everything would be fine when Sissouma’s wife called to say they were back at home, safe and sound.
But Sissouma’s wife called back a half hour later to say the riot police had executed him and five other people, including his elderly mother.
Interior Minister Emile Guirieoulou acknowledged receiving the call, but refused to confirm the arrests or the killings, because the investigation is ongoing.
“In Ivory Coast, there have never been religious problems, Christians and Muslims live side by side. This tragic incident is a pure result of the political crisis,” said Imam Moussa Drame, whose own mosque was attacked in December.
Some 38.6 percent of Ivorians are Muslim, and 32.8 percent are Christians, according to the CIA World Factbook. An inter-religious council, made up of Christian and Muslim leaders is one of the country’s most respected institutions.
But xenophobia has long been a problem in this country, which has attracted millions of immigrant laborers from neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso. They came to work on plantations, especially cocoa farms that produce the raw material that goes into much of the world’s chocolate.
Resolving who would even be allowed to vote in the presidential election took years.
Now armed youth who support Gbagbo are stopping and threatening people at makeshift roadblocks across Abidjan.
Those with northern or Muslim names are accused of being pro-Ouattara rebels, and are beaten or killed, activists say.
Human Rights Watch reported dozens of ethnically and religiously motivated killings earlier this month, often carried out by the police or by pro-Gbagbo youth with police consent. Ouattara supporters were beaten to death “with bricks, clubs, and sticks, or doused them with gas and burned them alive.” Cell phone videos of the incidents have been posted on YouTube and Facebook, often accompanied by dehumanizing and anti-Muslim comments.
Fueling the fire is a relentless campaign of what the UN has called “lies” and “propaganda” on Gbagbo-controlled state television. The Radio-Television Ivorienne (RTI) is referred to by some foreign journalists as TV Mille Collines, in reference to the radio station that encouraged the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.
In one report aired last week, the anchorman smiled as he described a dozen alleged rebels killed by pro-Gbagbo soldiers in central Abidjan as “culled like little birds.” Graphic images of their bloodied bodies were interspersed with images of soldiers giving each other high five and cheering crowds.
“The future Gbagbo proposes for his country is war, anarchy and violence, with ethnic, religious and xenophobic dimensions,” wrote Louise Arbour, president of the International Crisis Group, in an open letter this week.