DAKAR, Senegal – Charles Ble Goude will not say what country he is in. He calls on a masked number, after an appointment set up by a go-between in France.
The 40-year-old headed the Young Patriots, an ultranationalist youth group that is implicated in hundreds of killings in Ivory Coast, according to Human Rights Watch. He has been in hiding for the past 14 months, and after more than a year's silence and library's worth of articles speculating where he may be holed up, he is finally talking again — albeit by phone.
It's unclear why he has chosen to break his silence now, except to give his version of events. It's a version in which he is the leader of a nonviolent struggle, not unlike Nelson Mandela, whose biography he says he's currently reading.
"I organized a struggle with bare hands in order to oppose the taking of power by the arms. Madam, is this something that should result in me going to the International Criminal Court?" he said in the telephone interview last week. "I have said it, and I repeat it — If I am asked to go to the ICC, I'm ready to go to the ICC."
Ble Goude was the head of the Young Patriots, a pro-government youth organization which many describe as a militia. He was also the minister of youth under former President Laurent Gbagbo, who ruled Ivory Coast for a decade until his defeat at the polls in late 2010.
He refused to accept defeat and his government is accused of using "death squads" in an attempt to silence supporters of the democratically elected president, Alassane Ouattara. Ble Goude's Young Patriots played a decisive role in creating a climate of terror, erecting barricades and checkpoints where they attempted to identify "enemies of Ivory Coast," meaning supporters of Ouattara. Because Ouattara is from northern Ivory Coast, and one side of his family has roots in Burkina Faso, anyone having a northern name, as well as immigrants from neighboring nations, became targets.
Dozens of West African immigrants were killed at Young Patriot checkpoints, many of them by first being "necklaced" with a tire and set on fire.
Until Gbagbo was forced from power in April, Ble Goude held regular rallies where he used increasingly xenophobic rhetoric, which many believe incited his supporters to violence. He denies that he played a role in the killings that followed.
"Can you show me a single video, or a single audio, where I asked the youth of Ivory Coast to hurt foreigners?" he said during a call marred by a bad connection. "These are vulgar lies, that I deny. It's not true."
In a report on the post-election period, Human Rights Watch said that the violence against West African immigrants began in December, immediately after the country's election commission announced that Ouattara had won. However, the attacks intensified markedly in February, following a televised Feb. 25 speech by Ble Goude. In that speech, Ble Goude enjoined his supporters to erect checkpoints "and to check the comings and goings in your neighborhoods and denounce every foreign person who enters."
Both The Associated Press and the BBC reported the speech, and a transcript appears in Human Rights Watch's October 2011 report, as well as in the report of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry. A video clip is available on the website of Djibitv.com.
After that speech, Human Rights Watch documented the gruesome killings of at least 32 immigrants, 14 of whom were gruesomely slain, including by being set on fire. Witnesses said the aggressors made reference to Ble Goude's "order."
Ble Goude denies he ever made that speech, or any other that could have fanned the flames of hatred.
"What you are saying is totally removed from reality. I never asked the young people to put up checkpoints in order to identify the foreigners — that's not true!" he said.
"The young people they put up checkpoints to see if the people living in their neighborhoods, or in different neighborhoods, are armed or not ... I never asked anybody to put up barricades so as to control the foreigners. This isn't true! It's your own invention."
During the 40-minute interview, Ble Goude at several points got frustrated and wanted to know why the AP is interested in speaking about the past, rather than the present. He pointed to the widespread human rights abuses that have been committed by Ouattara's regime.
Although his victory at the polls was recognized by all the major world powers, Ouattara was only able to assume power after French and United Nations airstrikes made it possible for Ouattara's fighters to penetrate the security cordon around Gbagbo's bunker. The ex-president was arrested on April 11, and has since been transferred to The Hague where he is awaiting trial.
Since then, Ouattara's security forces are accused of carrying out massacres in areas of the country known to have supported the former ruler.
"Under the eyes of human rights operators, people are being abducted in Ivory Coast. You know very well they are being tortured," said Ble Goude. "No one is daring to speak about this."
Ble Goude called back once during the interview to try to get a clearer line. The bad connection, which at times made it impossible to hear him, suggests that he is not near a major population center. There have been countless reported sightings of him, and speculation that he is everywhere from Ghana, Liberia and Togo — countries where many Gbagbo supporters fled — to Gambia and Angola, two countries that staunchly supported Gbagbo until the end.
He belied little about his current life, saying only that he "is not dying of hunger." He is also using his time to read, especially the biography of Mandela. He says it is not safe for him to return to Ivory Coast.
"A life in hiding is never normal. The situation that Ivory Coast is living through now is not normal. So I can't have a normal daily existence," he said. "I am reading a lot and I am praying a lot. ... This is a moment of reflection for me. A moment to look back a bit at everything that happened ... It's what I am doing right now."
Callimachi is the West Africa bureau chief for The Associated Press. In 2010 and 2011, she covered the post-election violence in Ivory Coast, including the fall of Gbagbo.