By Fatou Keïta, a novelist. This essay was translated by The Times from the French (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 06/04/11):
For several days we have lived with fire from automatic weapons and AK-47’s. Despite our prayers, fighting over last fall’s disputed presidential election has come to Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s main city and the stronghold of the incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo.
Last Thursday, we started hearing that troops loyal to Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of the election, were coming. This city waited in an agonized calm. And then, at twilight, they passed under our windows. My son and I crept to a window and peeked through the curtains to watch them.
Armed men walked by silently, their strides determined, followed by vehicles with their headlights off. It was like something from a movie. They were headed to Cocody, the wealthy suburb where the state television has its headquarters. Later, we heard shots. The assault on Gbagbo partisans was beginning.
In my apartment building, my neighbors are on both sides of the political debate, yet harmony reigns. We know that we shouldn’t talk politics — we can be wise if we have to be.
On Sunday, as president of the building’s board, I organized an emergency meeting. Everyone was there. My neighbors’ faces were somber, but there was no animosity. We were all the same under fire. It was a question of survival, which superseded all political division.
Some days earlier, looters had invaded our parking lot. We watched them from our windows, hidden behind our curtains, powerless. They were intent on stealing our cars: all the windows were broken, the interiors pillaged. “Give us the keys!” one shouted up to us. “If we have to go in there, you’ll be sorry!” They tried several times to drive off with my car, but as stubborn as its owner, it refused to start and they had to give up. Three other cars were taken, but thank heavens, the bandits didn’t try to force open the door to our building.
By the end of our meeting, we had decided that in case of an attack on our building, we would give the alarm by beating on our pots and pans. We also set hours for taking out the trash and going out to look for food when it was possible.
The days are long because, obviously, we are confined to our homes by the gunfire. When the shooting is heavy, I yell at everyone to lie flat in the hallway. My little granddaughter is terrified. Some of my neighbors have bullets in their walls.
I am on my computer all day and well into the night talking to friends around the world by Skype and trying to find out scraps of information about what’s going on in my country. We depend on news from Paris, New York, Stockholm, because state television tells us only propaganda and lies. Fortunately, a new, pro-Ouattara station has sprung up to tell us what the president-elect is doing.
My son bursts into my bedroom. One of his friends needs the telephone number of a doctor; a woman is giving birth, but nobody can get out to help her. I send messages to friends to get me the number of the Red Cross. My friend Kim in Paris finds it (thank you, Internet).
On Monday we are told that the final all-out assault by Mr. Ouattara’s side is near. The curfew starts at noon, and the atmosphere is heavy and leaden. I type frantically on my computer to get news. My back aches because I’ve been sitting so long; my eyes hurt, but I can’t tear myself away from the screen, even when it tells me lies. So many rumors!
Then it finally happens. The troops enter Abidjan to liberate the presidential palace. United Nations and French forces bombard Mr. Gbagbo’s bases. The walls tremble; I am online with people in France — Kim in Paris, my daughter in Lille, Claire in Metz, Georges in Lyon — and simultaneously with Maty in Senegal and Badala in the city of Bouaké, in the center of the country. I am constantly interrupted by calls from relatives and friends around the world. Hunkered down in the hallway with my family, my computer on the floor, I hold up my phone so they can hear the gunfire.
In that hallway, we are afraid; there are suddenly too many windows and we try to get as far away from them as possible. Still, we manage to laugh at how we contort our bodies to protect ourselves. My son says that he would never have imagined that one day he would have to slither on the floor like a snake. We laugh — have we become insane?
Tuesday morning, the uneasy calm is interrupted by sporadic gunfire. They say that the presidential palace is under siege; they say that soldiers are looking for Mr. Gbagbo; they say that he’s ready to surrender … they say … they say. My computer continues to feed me lies and contradictions. I am waiting for the end. I am waiting for deliverance.
Fuente: Bitácora Almendrón. Tribuna Libre © Miguel Moliné Escalona