ABIDJAN (Reuters) - The first time Laurent Gbagbo’s gunmen stormed our Abidjan hotel in a hail of bullets, I didn’t quite believe it was happening.
I’d spent hours nervously convincing myself that a big international hotel with 10 floors, hundreds of rooms, steel fencing and a locked gate was an unlikely target.
They’re fighting a war. They’re not interested in us.
Even when gunfire and explosions erupted occasionally from the presidential palace a block away, or over the lagoon, I’d felt relatively safe, curled up on the floor in the fetal position.
There’d been heavy fighting in Abidjan for a month before we moved to the hotel, and I was learning to sleep through it.
But on the morning of April 4, watching from the window as 10 militiamen in combat fatigues jumped the fence one by one and ran inside, I had a sudden realization that picking a French hotel in the town center, full of money and foreigners and lit up like a Christmas tree at night, maybe wasn’t such a clever idea.
There were about 25 foreign journalists in the Novotel hotel, including five from Reuters — me, reporters Ange Aboa and Loucoumane Coulibaly, photographer Luc Gnago and cameraman Media Coulibaly. We were here to cover an increasingly vicious war in Ivory Coast, triggered by Gbagbo’s refusal to step down after an election which, according to results certified by the United Nations, he lost to his bitter rival Alassane Ouattara.
We knew the risk: Gbagbo has been handing out AK-47s to young hotheads for weeks and they’ve been on the rampage. We’d made a plan about what to do should the hotel be raided. That promptly fell to pieces when the panic set in.
We’d agreed to go to the roof. Instead, everyone ran around for a bit, then we somehow mostly all ended up in one room near the top floor. There was more shooting, and shouting.
We called the French peacekeeping force, Licorne, and sat in confusion, trying to keep each other quiet in a cacophony of ssssh-ing. But it was soon all over.
The militiamen robbed the till, then kidnapped the hotel manager and three guests from their rooms.
No one has heard from them since.
Overlooking the palm-fringed lagoon to the south — with its two bridges we could not risk crossing to the safety of a French military base — I realized we were trapped.
I’ve been living in Ivory Coast since the end of 2009, when everyone was waiting for elections that would resolve a protracted crisis since a 2002-3 rebellion against Gbagbo.
The election came last November; when Ouattara was declared winner and the foreign press reported it, the mood of Gbagbo’s supporters and troops soured against us — and made Abidjan an oppressive and sometimes scary place to report.
Gbagbo’s violent youth mobs have attacked journalists and his security forces have arrested and harassed them.
Carrying a press card became a hazard, I suspected my phone was being bugged and found myself looking over my shoulder as I got in my car in dimly lit places.
State TV regularly churned out denunciations of the foreign press and its “lies,” even calling us “terrorists.”
Four months of these conditions had made me jumpy — probably more so than in any time during the almost two years I’d spend in Iraq or years covering other African conflicts.
So when the second attack happened the following day — this time some of Gbagbo’s regular soldiers shot their way into the lobby — I thought: this could be a kidnapping.
My girlfriend Monica Mark, also a journalist, and I were in our room when we heard the initial gunfire. We phoned around: the soldiers had entered the building.
I heard more gunshots, then boots running up the stairs.
“Hide under the bed,” I whispered, but there was no space under the bed, so she settled for a crouched-up corner of the cupboard, obscured by a towel.
“Take this money and give it to them if they get really nasty,” she said, handing me a wad of 1,000 pounds in cash.
I sat on the bed holding it, thinking about what I might be able to say to dissuade a prospective kidnapper.
“Take the money, it’s all I have?” No, they’d take it and kidnap me anyway. “I’m British and our government never pays ransoms, there’s no point taking me?” They might kill me then.
I called the office and various diplomats to see if we could get Licorne out again, prompting lots of people to panic on our behalf. But with the French troops busy rescuing thousands of their citizens, it was clear they wouldn’t be able to come in time.
“You have to realize they’ve got bigger fish to fry and they may not come. Bunker down and hope,” a diplomat told me.
In that moment I knew that no matter how much danger I was in, I was not the center of the universe.
Then came a knock on the door. I didn’t answer. My phone rang: it was my colleague Ange.
“Tim, are they still here?”
“I don’t know.”
“We have to get Licorne here now. This is serious.” I couldn’t agree more.
A second knock. But it seemed too polite to be a rampaging soldier so I opened — to find our driver Ouattara Karamoko there. The men had gone, fleeing over the roof and down a fire escape, with cash, food, but no hostages.
Relief. But we’d seen enough to want to get out. The hotel, with two dozen journalists, was now a proven target in a town swarming with pro-Gbagbo militias intent on killing their enemies, who seemed to include us.
People would jump every time anyone with a gun walked past the gate and looked in. We got the sense that even the hotel staff wanted us to leave, for fear we were endangering them.
The French forces came two days later to evacuate the hotel — pulling out not just journalists but several French, Lebanese and Ivorian families.
Some French journalists stayed behind. The French soldiers loaded up several trucks with fleeing foreigners and Ivorians, strapped them in helmets and flak jackets, and drove us over the bridges.
The main road leading to the airport was a wasteland of war. The body of a woman who sold fried food on the roadside lay riddled with bullet holes, her frying pan beside her.
Buildings were destroyed, shops trashed, burned-out cars littered the roadside. A huge department store spilled its furniture onto the road through smashed windows.
We are the lucky ones. Men with guns — Gbagbo loyalists but also Ouattara’s forces — have been terrorizing civilians for months. But for most there will be no escape, no evacuation.
Thousands may have died.
Editing by Simon Robinson, Giles Elgood and Sara Ledwith