In Ivory Coast, churches begin to heal
ABIDJAN, IVORY COAST (BP)--The air is filled with a nauseating, thick, black smoke. Three months ago, the smoke came from gunpowder and vehicles set ablaze -- along with horrific "necklacings," modern-day lynchings in which a victim is burned alive when a gasoline-filled tire is placed around him and set on fire.
Today, however, the plumes of smoke are from dozens of dilapidated 16-passenger vans known as "gbakas," each filled to capacity and speeding up and down streets that once were battlefields, laced with potholes, but now bustling with activity once again.
Street vendors mob vehicles stopped at red lights and press their wares against the windows. City workers in orange hazard vests busily sweep trash out of the roads with straw brooms. Bus stations are crammed with travelers bringing merchandise both into and out of the city.
Earlier in the year, Abidjan's commerce came to a standstill and the streets were empty as people hid in their homes to escape the violence. A noon curfew was imposed, and even then only those most desperate for food and water came out in the mornings.
The battle for Abidjan lasted for months between fighters supporting the winner of last November's presidential election, Alassane Ouattara, and government troops backing the former president, Laurent Gbagbo.
When Gbagbo refused to step down, bloody urban warfare spread across Abidjan's neighborhoods, taking the lives of at least 3,000 people. The fighting culminated with U.N. intervention on April 11 of this year when the presidential palace was bombarded and Gbagbo finally surrendered.
The months leading up to that fateful day were incredibly difficult for Abidjan's populace -- no matter which (if any) political candidate they supported. The city's water supply was shut off and food prices tripled as a result of the siege.
Edith Vilquin*, a resident who works as a house maid, spent her life's savings to feed her family during the lockdown. "If my children had gone out in the streets they would have been shot," she says. "I'm an old lady, so the militants left me alone."
She raises her hands above her head and says, "This is how I walked. For a month, this is how we all walked."
Like Vilquin, most residents of neighborhoods overrun with soldiers fled to areas with less direct violence, with a well-established Baptist church in one such neighborhood opening its doors to refugees from churches across town.
"At one point we had over 60 people here at the church," Joseph Armoo*, the church's pastor, says. "They slept in our Sunday School rooms and we shared our meals."
The refugees included other Baptist pastors and their families.
"I can't stress how much of a blessing our brothers and sisters in Christ were," Baptist pastor Kouame Pacome* recounts.
His neighborhood saw some of the worst fighting during the crisis. His church facility closed after looters took all its furniture, musical instruments and even lighting fixtures.
Pacome and his wife hid in their home for weeks before finally fleeing to Armoo's church. During the month he spent at his newfound refuge, he never went without food.
"I had three meals a day, every day. It was amazing," Pacome says. Although his church members were displaced across the city, they went to great lengths not only to telephone and check up on him, but also to send money and supplies.
Armoo credits God with providing for the people taking refuge at his church compound. "Every day, someone would show up to give us help. One day, a Christian woman showed up at the gate with a bunch of mattresses for us."
On other days, believers would come by and give them money to buy food. "It was by the grace of God that we survived this!" he exclaims.
The refugees came from neighborhoods and ethnic groups known to support opposing sides of the conflict. Yet they shared their meals and lodging together.
"Your blood family is a gift from God. It's good, but it has its limits," Pacome says. "There is death, there is old age, there is separation ... but your family in Christ is eternal."
As the new government calls for reconciliation among the population, believers are seeing an opportunity to reach out.
"The church's message has always been one of reconciliation. A person who gives himself to the Lord becomes a new person," Armoo says. "After all," he continues, "we are supposed to be different. The time is now to show the difference between the Christian and the non-Christian."
At times during the conflict, and even after the U.N. intervention, the fighting seemed on the verge of becoming religious. The U.N. Operation in Ivory Coast (UNOCI) reports that heavily armed troops raided the premises of a Jesuit institution on April 17. One of the soldiers reportedly stated they were attacking under the perception that the Catholic Church supported their opposition's forces and was being used to hide weapons. UNOCI notes that not a single weapon was found.
This prompted Muslim and Christian leaders to meet at Armoo's church to discuss how to ease such tensions and dispel harmful rumors.
Many neighborhoods selected both religious and ethnic leaders in their communities to form "reconciliation committees." François Gico*, another Baptist pastor who sought refuge with Armoo, is on one of these committees.
"I'm happy, even proud, to be a part of the community leadership with Muslim imams," Gico says. "We have to work together to help keep the peace."
Both Gico and Pacome have since returned to their respective neighborhoods and their churches are holding services once again, with attendance slowly returning to pre-conflict numbers as members return to the city.
"It's by the grace of God that we are alive," says Gico, who had a brush with death when a stray bullet came through the church office roof and struck beside him.
It is with that realization that Gico and the other pastors have been emphasizing the importance of evangelism to their congregations. "Yes, we are hurting," Gico says, "but in Jesus, people can still have hope."
"After all," Pacome says as he holds up his Bible, "if God allowed us to live through this ordeal, then He has a mission for us."
*Names changed. William Haun is a long-term volunteer who works alongside the International Mission Board's global communication team. To see more photos and video from Ivory Coast, visit www.africastories.org.