French Army Saves Lebanese Expats in Abidjan
"We saw a helicopter in the sky, we called for help and the soldiers picked us up" in Ivory Coast's embattled economic capital Abidjan, a rescued Lebanese woman said after being flown to Senegal.
The woman, who declined to give her name, said that she and seven rescued members of her family had been trapped by heavy fighting and also at the mercy of looters.
"There were eight of us in the house. If it hadn't been for the chopper," all of them would still be in danger in Abidjan's Deux-Plateaux-Vallons, a residential part of the Cocody district, said the woman's husband, who gave his name as Ahmed.
Because of roadblocks manned by armed men and unidentified snipers in Cocody and on the bridges crossing the Ebrie lagoon, Ahmed said, "nobody can make the trip" to the French military base at Port-Bouet, near Abidjan's airport, where hundreds of French nationals and other foreigners have gathered in the past week.
Before the arrival on Monday of French soldiers, "we were in the house 24 hours a day, for four or five days," Ahmed said, adding that this was the fate of thousands of people still trapped at home in Abidjan, at the mercy of looters and sometimes with no food, water or electricity.
Another Lebanese man, asking not to be named, said the looters were "armed people, on 4x4s and pick-up trucks."
There was no indication whose side they were on in the battle between supporters of would-be president Alassane Ouattara and fighters for Laurent Gbagbo, who refuses to acknowledge that he lost an election last November.
The looters "want money and goods (and target) everybody, but most of the stores raided belong to Lebanese traders. There were thefts everywhere, in houses, cars, businesses, shops, everything," said this strongly built man, who added that he had been in Ivory Coast for 14 years and regarded it as his "second country."
He lived in Zone 4, a part of the Marcory district renowned for its shops, restaurants and bars, and home to many expatriates. He left Abidjan for Dakar in Senegal Tuesday night with all the members of his family on a French military flight carrying 70 people.
Many Lebanese are currently staying in a hotel on the northern outskirts of the Senegalese capital.
"The French army gave out an emergency number, we called it. After some time (the soldiers) came to find us. There were several of us, Lebanese, French, a mixture. If the French had not come to get us, it would have been a catastrophe," said the burly Lebanese. "We don't know how to thank France for that."
Among the half-dozen of his compatriots lying under parasols at the side of the hotel pool, the accounts of events are all fairly similar and the gratitude to France is heartfelt, but not without a certain bitterness because of the turn of events in Abidjan.
After 10 years in Ivory Coast, "I will be leaving for Lebanon because of my children," said Ahmed, looking at his small daughter.
But he plans to return to Abidjan some day. He was there in 2002, during the foiled coup against Gbagbo that left Ivory Coast partitioned, with pro-Gbagbo forces in the south and rebels who today back Ouattara holding the north.
"Today I pray for Ivory Coast, that everybody calms down, that everyone comes out of it okay and gets back to work," Ahmed said.