Published January 13, 2015
They walk slowly but steadily, hundreds of people filing along a grass-fringed road under an energy-sapping sun. They carry their most precious and necessary belongings in bags, all that is left of lives shattered 10 days ago by a rebel uprising.
Gilbert trudges along in bare feet -- his head protected from the sun by a red bandanna -- hoisting a red-and-white rucksack.
"I am very tired," he said.
Gilbert, who would not reveal his last name, said he left Bouake, a rebel-held city in central Ivory Coast, by taking a roundabout route to Tiebissou, a small town about 15 miles south.
"God was with us," he said before heading off toward Yamoussoukro, another grueling 25 miles south.
As he walked along Saturday, French army trucks and armored personnel carriers with mounted cannons rumbled by. The refugees crossed several roadblocks, some manned by heavily armed French troops and others by Ivorian soldiers.
The desperate image is all too familiar in Africa, but it shocks in Ivory Coast, a former French colony long considered an oasis of stability in a blood-soaked region.
Ivory Coast has hosted those seeking shelter from conflicts in neighboring countries, like Liberia and Sierra Leone, both devastated by a decade of war. But such a mass movement of Ivorians is virtually unprecedented.
The once-tranquil nation's descent into conflict began Sept. 19 with the rattle of pre-dawn gunfire in the commercial capital Abidjan, a city formerly known as the Paris of West Africa because of its skyscrapers, chic restaurants and well-stocked shops.
That signaled the start of a coup attempt by disgruntled soldiers purged from the army on suspicion of disloyalty. The rebellion was put down in 12 hours in Abidjan, but not before about 270 people were killed, including the alleged coup leader, former junta ruler Robert Guei, a senior Cabinet minister and several senior army officers.
Rebels since have holed up in Bouake and the northern opposition stronghold of Korhogo. They also have moved into the western town of Odienne.
The government has declared the rebel areas "war zones" and says an attack is imminent.
"It's a terrible situation, a catastrophic situation," said Moise Kouadio, a teacher from Bouake, who was on the road south of Tiebissou. He wore a green baseball cap and carried a small, black leather bag with two shirts, a phone charger, a pair of shoes and a pair of trousers.
He pointed to his battered toes, saying he had to take off his shoes and switch to green flip-flops as he walked. He believed, but was not sure, that his three children -- ages 11, 9 and 7 -- were ahead of him.
The people struggling with their heavy bundles were not the first to leave Bouake, a city of 500,000. French troops have evacuated about 2,100 foreigners -- including 312 Americans -- using land convoys, helicopters and cargo planes.
On Sunday, French and American troops began evacuating residents from Korhogo, whizzing them to the town's airport in helicopters and bundling them onto cargo planes to fly to Yamoussoukro.
Bouake residents were pinned down by sporadic gunfire since the coup attempt, surviving without water or electricity and terrified that a government offensive would engulf the city. The departure of expatriates was, for many, a clear signal to get out.
But many residents who tried to flee were turned back by uniformed rebel troops, who said they were not in danger and should not leave their homes.
"I think that was just an excuse to make us stay as a human shield," Kouadio said. "Because then they would not be able to bomb the city."
The flow of desperate, scared people was not confined just to the Bouake and Korhogo regions. After rebels in Odienne pressed south toward Touba on Friday, panicked residents more than 150 miles down the road fled the city of Man.
For Desire Kwakou, the last straw was the night of gunfire in Tiebissou that left his family hiding in the house. He headed off Saturday to join his family in a nearby village.
"I did not even bring any luggage," he said. "Please help us. We've never experienced this kind of thing before."
For some refugees, the fear of a government offensive was enough reason to flee. Those leaving Bouake reported that rebels won the sympathy of many by paying for food and refraining from looting.
"At first we were scared of them. But then we saw they were not aggressive so we were no longer scared," Kouadio said.
Rebel support seems to be growing in the country's north, where people complain of being treated as second-class citizens by the southern-based government of President Laurent Gbagbo. Northerners are predominantly Muslim and belong to different ethnic groups than the largely Christian southerners.
The government repeatedly has accused Ivory Coast's northern-based opposition and unspecified foreign countries -- widely assumed to include Burkina Faso -- of fomenting unrest that has overtaken the country since its first coup in 1999. Burkina Faso denies any role in the latest uprising.
Kouadio only knows that his life has been turned upside down.
"I am a teacher and I must wander the Ivory Coast instead of being in class. I will continue to wander around in the free zones," he said.