DUEKOUE, Ivory Coast – His fighters are accused of carrying out the worst massacre perpetrated during Ivory Coast's bloody, post-election conflict two years ago. Despite repeated vows from the government to force them out, they continue to illegally occupy a national park.
And when their leader, Amade Oueremi, travels through this western town, he hardly behaves like a man on the lam, cruising through in a conspicuous motorcade of dozens of cars and motorcycles, local officials say.
"It's a big mystery to us, because he's escorted around here like he's a military leader, or a chief," said Denis Badouon, an assistant to the mayor. "We don't understand it."
It has been nearly two years since the power struggle between former President Laurent Gbagbo and his successor, Alassane Ouattara, came to an end. The fighting, which began after Gbagbo refused to leave office despite having lost the November 2010 presidential runoff vote, claimed more than 3,000 lives over five months, according to the United Nations.
Since becoming president, Ouattara has tried to bridge lingering divisions. But the continued impunity for Oueremi, who joined pro-Ouattara forces during the conflict, is a prominent example of what rights groups describe as a barrier to reconciliation: The president's unwillingness — or perhaps inability — to prosecute allies who have been implicated in grave abuses. Though crimes have been documented on both sides, only Gbagbo allies have been charged.
"For us the issue is simple. Amade has been cited as one of the violators of human rights during the post-election crisis and he needs to be arrested," said Sindou Bamba, the head of a coalition of human rights groups that has documented abuses committed by Oueremi's men. "Not only that, but he is occupying this land illegally. Land is one of the drivers of conflict in Ivory Coast. So we need to use all peaceful means to resolve this case."
By the middle of March 2011, the postelection conflict was heading toward its violent conclusion, and residents recall how Oueremi's fighters were a prominent armed presence in this region of fertile red earth, covered in cocoa plantations. On March 25, the chief of a village roughly 30 kilometers (18 miles) north of Duekoue was detained by Oueremi's fighters and taken to a nearby checkpoint, where the fighters stripped him and threatened to beat him. When Oueremi himself arrived, he accused the village chief of sending information about the fighters' whereabouts to their pro-Gbagbo opponents.
"I replied that this was not true because we did not even have (telephone) network coverage, so we could not call anyone," said the village chief, who insisted on anonymity for security reasons. "When Amade took my phone, he found that there really was no coverage, and there were no compromising numbers in the call log. He then said, 'You're lucky, if you really had called someone, these fighters would kill you.'"
Days later, Oueremi's fighters took part in the notorious massacre in Duekoue's Carrefour neighborhood, allege numerous witnesses as well as several reports by international human rights groups. Denis Ble, a 50-year-old Carrefour resident, said two fighters who identified themselves as members of Oueremi's militia appeared that day in the courtyard of his home, where he was sheltering dozens of relatives and neighbors.
"The two Amade men walked to the door and said if they had to open it themselves they would kill us all," Ble said. "So I opened the door, and they immediately grabbed a 12-year-old boy who was hiding behind me and put him down on the ground and pointed their guns at him. And one of them told me that if I didn't want my son to be killed I had to bring him ($100 dollars)."
Ble eventually produced the money and those inside his house were permitted to flee. But not everyone who came across Oueremi's fighters was so lucky. Human Rights Watch has identified Oueremi as "among the main perpetrators" of the massacre, which killed hundreds of Gbagbo supporters. Preliminary U.N. figures showed that more than 200 Gbagbo supporters were killed immediately before, during and after the massacre, along with about 100 Ouattara supporters. The U.N. later reported that "at least 505" people died in Duekoue during the crisis.
Since 1986, Oueremi, a native of Burkina Faso, a country which borders Ivory Coast, settled in the area of Mount Peko National Park. A May 2011 U.N. report says he began supporting anti-Gbagbo rebels as early as 2000, and that his men have been hording weapons and ammunition since then. The U.N. report notes that Oueremi is widely believed to possess "mystical powers." In photos taken during the crisis, his shirts are pulled tightly over a collection of charms and pendants seen bulging underneath, believed to give him protection from enemy fire. A short man with puffy cheeks, he carries a two-foot sword in an orange-brown sheath.
His direct line is closely guarded, and interview requests submitted to two of his deputies, one of whom is Oueremi's brother, were denied.
He has given just one interview since the conflict, published last October in the state-run newspaper. In it, he dismissed accusations that he was involved in rights abuses. But the state-run newspaper published only a partial transcript. In video footage of the entire interview, seen last month by The Associated Press, Oueremi is less categorical in his denials, while providing more information on how the assault on Duekoue was planned.
Oueremi said that prior to the attack, a "large meeting" with various pro-Ouattara commanders was held in the nearby town of Man, where it was decided that his fighters would help attack Carrefour. Other commanders were to target other parts of the town.
He said it was not fair to accuse only his fighters of committing rights abuses. "If I am an author of these crimes then everyone is, because it is work that we did together," he said.
He added, "Those who are dirtying my name today are afraid of me because I can reveal other names."
For more than a year, Ouattara's administration has been criticized for failing to arrest and charge any of his military backers. Some analysts have speculated that Ouattara may believe the security risks are too great, as powerful commanders could turn against him if they believe they are under threat of prosecution.
Oueremi may be less of a danger, says an expert on Ivory Coast. "I don't think that Oueremi and his forces on their own pose a major security threat if Oueremi was indicted," said Scott Straus, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin who has studied the conflict in Ivory Coast. "But I don't know what kind of support Oueremi has . I don't know whether or not Ouattara is being told, 'If any of our people go, we will make life difficult for you.'"
Since last August, military officials have twice announced plans to disarm Oueremi's men and remove them from Mount Peko National Park, though those plans have amounted to nothing.
Matt Wells, West Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch, said this type of impunity for pro-Ouattara fighters is unsustainable. "Ivory Coast's deep communal divisions are likely to continue to grow so long as the victims of grave crimes committed by pro-Ouattara forces have no recourse to justice," he said.
"The fact that Ivorian authorities have failed to credibly investigate Amade and his men for their alleged role in the Duekoue massacre, despite detailed documentation by independent groups, is a constant and dangerous reminder that pro-Ouattara forces remain above the law."