Al Jazeera Blogs


Africa

Nightmare checkpoints on the road to Abidjan

Pedestrians are searched and sometimes lose their belongings. But they dare not argue - the loaf of bread is not worth dying for.
Last modified: 7 Apr 2011 19:17
Photo by Reuters

The town of Bassam is less than 30km from Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire's commercial capital.

Very close to the heart of the fighting, it's relatively easy to reach by road but hard to leave.

The police station is deserted - the front gate torn open, doors bashed in and not a person in sight.

After last week's attack the police fled, we are told.

You don't notice it at first but eventually you realise there are no soldiers or policemen here.

A few metres away is the first menacing-looking checkpoint.

Young men have blocked the highway with tyres, rocks, branches from trees – basically anything they can use.

My heart skips a beat as I try to stay calm. There are five of us in the car - two women and three men.

The strategy is if we are asked any questions the men must speak. You generally don't go wrong if you follow this theory in Africa.

I have no problem with that - the last thing I want is to engage in a conversation with someone carrying a machete unnecessarily. 

Five people run to the car. The leader of the group orders our driver to roll down his window.

The other four peer in looking very suspiciously at our luggage piled on the back seat - camera equipment and other belongings.

I've heard stories of people being robbed at these checkpoints - passports and money snatched from them by these gangs who have seemingly taken the law unto themselves.

But surprisingly they let us through and we inch towards Abidjan.

The same thing happens a few more times. We are in high spirits. Maybe we are going to make it into the city centre after all.

Then for some reason our driver decides to ignore the order to stop at another checkpoint and all hell breaks loose.

People start shouting, someone pulls out a pistol and a rock is hurled at us.

The car immediately comes to a halt. Our driver is dragged out. He tries to pacify the angry mob but it only makes them more furious.

We are also told to get out of the vehicle and grilled.

Being journalists seemed to help. After searching our equipment - I assume for weapons - they let us go.

But the further we head into Abidjan, the more dangerous the checkpoints become. We reluctantly turn back.

It's almost surreal, there is a civil war and people are walking on the road. Were it not for the checkpoints you would think things are normal here.

Pedestrians are searched and sometimes lose their belongings. But they dare not argue - the loaf of bread is not worth dying for. 

People are desperate. Stealing someone else's food is the only way to survive for some here.

This is life for people in Abidjan right now - and there is no sign of things changing anytime soon.