Ethnic group targeted after Guinea election

2010-12-01 15:09
Conakry - A puddle of blood runs down a sloping road here where children once raced "cars", towing boxes of sardines on strings. It was so large that neighbours tried to cover it with sand.

The stain marked the spot where a young man from the Peul ethnic group was shot dead by police of another ethnicity. It also marks how this African country of 10 million which was once held up as a model of ethnic tolerance has taken a turn toward hate.

After a contested presidential election this month, Guinea's armed forces aligned themselves with the Malinke group, from which the new president comes.

Platoons of soldiers invaded Peul neighbourhoods, bludgeoned families and rounded up hundreds for arrest, leaving at least seven dead. Text messages saying the army planned to "eliminate the Peul" began circulating, leading private cellphone providers to temporarily cut off their text messaging service.

The targeting of one ethnicity threatens a region where Guinea has long acted as a buffer against its neighbours and has jealously guarded its reputation as a dot of relative peace on a map of war. But more worrying still is the fact that the security forces themselves, who are largely Malinke, are taking part in the violence against the Peul.

Ethnic fault line


"If it was just between us, we could defend ourselves," said Moustapha Diallo, in a Peul neighbourhood where you could crunch bullet casings underfoot. "But against the soldiers, what can we do? They have arms. We have rocks."

The ethnic fault line underlying Guinea's recent election was exposed during the first round of voting in June, when the field of 24 candidates was narrowed to Peul candidate Cellou Dalein Diallo and Malinke politician Alpha Conde, pitting the country's two largest ethnicities against each other.

Each group is estimated at around 35% of the population, according to census officials.

On the morning of November 15, as word spread that Diallo had lost, his supporters began burning tires, throwing rocks at passing cars and setting fire to the homes of Malinke neighbours.

The response was immediate and brutal. Over the next three days, security forces systematically attacked Peul communities, spraying populated areas with bullets. They burst into homes where they beat, slapped, stabbed and burned people.

Multiple witnesses said police and soldiers shouted slurs directed at the community, including "We're going to finish the Peul!" and "You Peul bastards, you thought you'd win the election?"

In front of an AP reporter, police grabbed a 40-year-old Peul man trying to cross the street near a Malinke house that had been set on fire hours earlier.

Peul patients

They dragged him to their pickup, where an officer took off his fibreglass helmet and beat the man over the head with it until blood ran down his temple. Also in view of a reporter, soldiers bludgeoned a Peul teenager and kicked him with their boots, as he lay on his back trying to cover his head.

The hospital where most of the victims were taken said they treated 251 people, including 86 with bullet wounds. Among them was a boy who had been shot in the groin, a 1-year-old with a bullet lodged in her throat and a man whose intestines were sliced in two by a shot to his stomach.

Nearly all the patients were Peul, according to doctors at Donka National Hospital and a tour of the hospital's wards.

On November 16 and 17, Peul neighbourhoods in the capital looked like ghost towns as people cowered behind locked doors. Several witnesses said they saw soldiers and riot police take aim at people who were doing little more than standing in front of their homes or walking quietly.

Cherif Diallo, who was shot through the knee, said he only ventured outside to go to the bathroom. When he stepped into the street, his legs buckled under him.

"I turned my head and looked back and I saw them... They were firing down at us, aiming at people. I picked myself up and crawled back into the bathroom," said Diallo, who hid inside the stall for hours.

In the Hamdallaye Pharmacy neighbourhood, an 18-year-old was shot in the back of the neck after trying to cross the street at around 07:00 to buy bread, according to bystanders and his family, who showed the AP photos of his body.

Escape

The violence died down after the government instituted a "state of emergency". But Peul families have begun sending their wives and children to the countryside, and others are making plans to leave the country altogether.

Located on Africa's western coast and blessed with an abundance of minerals, Guinea has been playing with a bad deck for much of its 52-year history. Successive dictators plundered the nation's resources, and many families are so poor that they send their children to sell chewing gum and boxes of Q-tips in traffic.

In the 1970s, the country's Malinke despot claimed he had uncovered a Peul plot against him. He hung high-ranking Peul officials from a downtown bridge and jailed countless others. Resentment has grown against the ethnic group because they control a large share of the economy, including the majority of boutiques in the capital.

But Guinea has always been acutely aware of how its neighbours, Sierra Leone and Liberia, were destroyed by civil war. Guineans are proud to point out that Peul and Malinke have lived side-by-side for generations, often intermarrying, and that the Malinke general who leads the army has a Peul wife.

"I have lived through every single government since the colonial period and there was never a question of race... Guineans were not raised on division. We were always told that we were one family," said 70-year-old Moustapha Diallo, a retired army captain who is Peul.

His house was attacked by hooded soldiers who hit him and dragged his elderly wife across the floor.

An internal UN report leaked to the AP states that security forces actively targeted the Peul. The report was based on the observations of a senior UN official who followed the soldiers in his car and saw them shoot at civilians.

Blood

Many in the international community have refrained from publicly condemning the crackdown for fear of damaging relations with the new Malinke-led government and fanning the flames.

Last week, Guinea's prime minister told state TV that a journalist for a French radio station had "violated the law" by saying protesters had been "punished in a bloody crackdown", and challenged the journalist to show him the blood.

The blood lies in the streets in the Bantounka II neighbourhood, where a 29-year-old Peul dock worker called Alpha Boubacar Diallo stepped outside to buy mineral water. He turned to run when he saw the soldiers. They shot him in the head and back, and he fell forward on the sloping road, said witnesses.

"What makes me want to cry is that he was a quiet kid. He was not one of the ones throwing stones. He was the one telling others to let it go, to move on, to accept the results of the election," said Alpha Barry, the imam of Bantounka.

The young man's body lay on the asphalt for some time before his neighbours had the courage to retrieve him. His blood ran down the drive.

The imam ordered people to bring pails of sand to cover it up because it was scaring children. But the blood soaked through.

It's easy to spot. That stretch of pavement is now covered in flies.
- AP
Read more on:    guinea  |  west africa
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