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Writing the truth can be dangerous

February 04, 2007|by BOB MAGINNIS

Most American journalists are accustomed to dealing with readers angry over something that was written. They shout on the phone, write nasty notes or e-mails and sometimes even demand a meeting during which they pound on the desk and question the writer's intelligence.

But few U.S. writers, I would wager, have been stripped to their underwear, beaten unconscious and forced to flee the country in fear of their lives.

That's what happened to Siriki Diabate, a 33-year-old from the Cte d'Ivoire, better known to Americans as The Ivory Coast.

Diabate came to Hagerstown as part of an effort put together by the Virginia Council of Churches Refugee Resettlement Program. George Miller, the local program coordinator, called me this week and asked me to talk to this remarkable young man, who remains upbeat despite everything he has been through.

To understand Diabate's story, it's necessary to review the history of The Ivory Coast, a former French colony that became independent in 1960 and was ruled from then until 1993 by Flix Houphout-Boigny.

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Under his rule, the nation became one of Africa's most prosperous, but the country did not gain much experience with multi-part democratic elections, since under Houphout-Boigny, most opposition parties were small and not well supported.

Following the start of a rebellion in September of 2002, Diabate, who had been a teacher, joined the staff of a weekly newspaper.

"My job there was to inform the population about how the government was working," he said, adding that one of his stories was about the plight of the cocoa farmers.

For years, the cocoa farmers had a single organization, which negotiated a price with the government, which then sold the crops for export.

But by 2002, Diabate said, the government had broken the one big union into many smaller ones, each with much less leverage.

Instead of negotiating prices, Diabate said, "Each union was given its price per kilogram."

Diabate said, "It. has caused a lot of frustration. Some farmers were not benefitting from their work."

Perhaps more upsetting to those in power, Diabate wrote about the government's practice of confiscating the national identification cards of those who supported the opposition party.

Without such a card, you can't vote in elections, Diabate said.

After all of the intrigue and back-room maneuvering that took place after the 1999 coup, Diabate said that the government began to promote the idea that those from the northern part of the country were not truly Ivorians. Candidates said to have non-Ivorian parents were tossed off the ballot by the nation's electoral commission.

Many who supported the opposition party were purged from the civil service and the army and left the country as exiles. When the government appealed for their return and few did, the government declared them to be enemies.

"Even though some of them did come back, they were arrested and some were killed," he said.

Working in the newspaper office became more difficult, he said.

"They started calling the office and threatening us. They would say, "What you are writing is wrong and they will catch you and kill you.'"

Instead of going to the office, the staff would meet elsewhere, decide what stories to write and then depart, Diabate said.

"We had to hide, to avoid being hurt," he said, adding that neighbors often warned him when people were looking for him.

They found him on Jan. 11, 2005.

"Around 11 p.m. I was arrested by three unidentified people. When I shared my ID and my press card, they said they would take me to the police station," he said.

"I was ready to go the police station. I didn't steal. I didn't do anything wrong," he said.

But instead of a police car, they put him in a 4-by-4 vehicle and headed away from the police station.

Asked if he was a journalist for his paper, Diabate said he said he was.

"He gave me a slap on this side of my face," he said.

The vehicle came to a brushy area near the international airport, where he said he was taken out and stripped to his underwear.

"That's where I was molested, brutalized," he said. He was beaten on the head, the back, the buttocks and the soles of his feet until he passed out.

When he awoke, he said his tormentors were back at the vehicle, possibly beating someone else. He ran and heard gunshots in the distance.

He ran until about 4 a.m., when he came to a village where a woman helped him.

He contacted an American friend there - attempts to contact him via e-mail were unsuccessful -who sheltered him for five days and gave him money to escape to nearby Ghana. In three weeks, Diabate said he walked nearly 200 miles to get there.

He spent a year there while his refugee status was verified. He left behind a wife and three children, who had to leave their home to avoid problems with the government.

Miller said his group will work on getting the family members status as AORs - affiliates of a refugee.

For all his trials, Diabate does not seem sad, but eager to begin work in a job here, perhaps one in which his skills in English and French could be put to good use.

There has been some controversy about the refugees who have come to Hagerstown, but don't forget that this man is an ocean away from his home and family because he decided he must write the truth. For that, he deserves the local community's help and its respect.




Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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