Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Pioneering the north

Abidjan was a pleasant surprise. I had heard a number of damning reports of the city, including one from a friend of mine who was mugged in broad daylight crossing a bridge. Since he was there in 2003 the reputation of the bridge hasn't changed – anyone can tell you that if you cross it, you WILL get mugged – but having taken all due precaution, I found Abidjan to be an exciting, diverse and surprisingly up-beat metropolis. Nothing I've seen in West Africa can rival it for scyscrapers or good restaurants, and yet the neighborhoods till retain a good deal of friendly African charm.

But after 6 days I knew I had to move on, so I headed north toward Man. This involved crossing the Zone de Confiance, the cease-fire line separating rebel territory from government forces. As it turned out, though, the crossing was the least of my worries. By the time my minibus had bribed its way through a vertitible forest of military barrages (road-blocks – I counted 7 in one hour), we were all too happy to escape the underpaid Ivoirian armed forces.

Government territory ended with an impressive line of razor wire, a military encampment, two white UN tanks and a dozen or so Bangladeshi peacekeepers sitting around in blue helmets. They seemed interested in very little other than staring at me as I marched past, and when I smiled back one of them took a picture of me with his mobile phone. When I got back into my minibus they all came running up to ask, 'Which country? Which country?' I told them I was American, which earned me rounds of applause ('America is very good country! Very big!') quickly followed by an offer of marriage.

The rebels, when I finally found them, were a rag-tag bunch. The men at the first barrage over the border ushered us into what looked like a child's home-made fort and proceeded to go through our papers. The young man with the AK47 asked me a series of rather pointless questions ('when we see white people, we like to chat a little,' he explained) then let us go. It was the last I saw of them until I got into Man itself.

More to follow on Man . . . watch this space!

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