Life Turned Upside-Down in Ivory Coast

Kevin is a refugee from violence in the Ivory Coast.

Kevin, fourteen, sits with his family while his mother looks at one of his drawings at the camp for displaced people in western Ivory Coast. Photo credit: Colin Crowley/Save the Children

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Kevin is from Ivory Coast, a West African country that has been racked with violence recently after disputed elections. More than 1 million people — and hundreds of thousands of children — have been displaced in Ivory Coast. More than 150,000 Ivorian refugees have fled to neighboring Liberia. Fighting broke out in Kevin’s village, forcing him and his family to flee their home. They lost everything — including their house, clothes and all their belongings. Kevin and his family have been living in a camp for several months. Here is his story.

When Kevin sat down to watch a soccer game one afternoon this January, he had no idea what was about to happen.

He’d just settled in at Mr. Kalou’s house, his neighbor and third grade teacher. He’d always liked Mr. Kalou, a kind man who was more than happy to have his former student stop by and catch the occasional soccer match and while away the afternoon.

Kevin, a 14-year-old who liked soccer and studied hard to fulfill his dreams of becoming an Ivory Coast diplomat, loved the gentle pace of village life in the Ivory Coast. Women swayed down the streets with babies tied to their backs. Men sat in front of their shops, chatting and drinking sweet hibiscus juice. Life was live calm, and Kevin liked it.

So when he caught sight of nervous people running by Mr. Kalou’s house that afternoon, he knew something was wrong. Mothers in African villages don’t run. Neither do old men. There was tension in the air: Something, or someone, was coming.

Maybe a rumor had set them off? Maybe someone had leaked word that armed men were marching into town? Whatever it was, worried Kevin’s mom and she came and got him. They went home and hunkered down; they thought they could wait this out. After all, violence in Ivory Coast was nothing new. In the western part of the country where they lived, tension had been running high for years. It was mostly related to politics and old grievances. That had led to fighting in nearby towns. Tensions usually mounted, rumors spread, but things usually quickly calmed down.

But this time was different; Kevin could sense it. Armed men arrived. They looted shops and burned houses.

Kevin’s mom had had it. Her boys were in danger; it was time to leave.

As his village burned, Kevin’s mom tied her younger son to her back and set off on foot to a shelter Duékoué, more than 20 miles away.

Kevin didn’t even have time to grab his shoes.

Barefoot, he fell into pace with the river of Ivorians walking toward Duékoué, all of them carrying what they could. Kevin could feel the tension among the walkers. There was something in their gate, in their silence, that worried him. He’d heard people talk about the armed men who burned their village — he didn’t know who they were — and hoped he didn’t meet any along the way. Still, thoughts of death filled his head.

“There could have been a stray bullet, or they could have stopped us on the road,” he says. “But luckily, we weren’t caught.”

Everyone knew about the years of fighting in neighboring Liberia and Guinea and the thousands of refugees who fled to Ivory Coast. But Ivorians having to flee their homes? This was something new. Some were heading to Liberia, a country that wasn’t far removed from its own civil war.

Could this really be happening in Ivory Coast, which used to be known as the Jewel of West Africa? In western Ivory Coast, not far from Kevin’s village, tourists came to gawk at the waterfalls and enjoy the elaborate mask ceremonies and stilt dancing performed by Dan ethnic group.

But tourists stopped visiting. And since the conflict started in 2002, foreign governments recommend their citizens no longer visit. Kevin’s region, once flush with tourists, has become a virtual no-go zone for many in recent years.

Kevin’s still not used to his new life at the shelter, even four months into it. The temperature is in the 90s everyday with heavy humidity and frequent thunderstorms. There are tens of thousands of people from villages in western Ivory Coast who crowd in and around the compound. Most don’t feel safe returning to their homes, and in many cases, their homes have been destroyed, and they have nowhere to go.

Kevin ticks off other challenges: First of all, there’s no place to sleep; Kevin’s mom brought a woven matt for them but finding space is a problem. So every night, at 5 o’clock, he searches for a spot. If he’s lucky, he wedges in next to others, slaps at the mosquitoes and tries to ignore the wheezing old men and the crying babies.

“When it rains, no one sleeps, because most of us don’t have plastic sheeting,” Kevin says. “We stay and we wait. When it stops raining, we clean the ground and we try to put plastic sheeting if we have it. Then we put a straw mat under it.”

That’s not the only problem. Kevin can’t go to school. And for someone who has his sights set on becoming an ambassador for his country in France, school is important. He’s already missed a year of school in 2002 and almost another year in 2005.

“Here, I don’t go to school,” he says. “There was a school not that far that I tried to go to, but when we tried to go, there was shooting. They had started shooting again for awhile, so we stopped trying to go to school.

“It hurts me because other students in other cities are going to school but in my city we can’t go to school — it hurts, because we’re falling behind. It’s not good for me.”

For now, Kevin and his mom are in limbo. Life has improved recently. His aunt gives them rice when she gets some, his uncle bought him a few notebooks, and his brother paid for a pair of shoes. But that’s all cold comfort. Kevin can’t leave the camp, because he has no house to return to. There’s also the question of whether his village is safe.

Kevin, like everyone in the country, is waiting to see what will happen next.

How to Help Children in the Ivory Coast

Help Save the Children's relief efforts in the Ivory Coast by making a donation today. Your support will help us protect very vulnerable children and provide desperately needed relief supplies to children and families inside both Liberia and the Ivory Coast.