YAMOUSSOUKRO, Ivory Coast – President Alassane Ouattara was inaugurated Saturday as Ivory Coast's president in the stately ceremony he should have enjoyed six months ago, but was prevented from holding by the entrenched ruler who refused to accept his election defeat and nearly dragged the nation into civil war in a bid to stay in power.
In an effort to stop Ouattara from assuming office, outgoing president Laurent Gbagbo deployed the army to block the roads leading to the hotel which had served as Ouattara's campaign headquarters in the weeks before last year's election.
Imprisoned inside, Ouattara was forced to take the oath of office in the hotel lobby at a ceremony attended only by his closest aides.
By contrast, the lavish ceremony on Saturday was attended by some 20 heads of state in a show of international support for the democratically elected leader. Ouattara used the occasion to underscore his legitimacy and the return to constitutional order, but also to reach out to the half of the country that had voted for his opponent. Hundreds of people were killed in the political standoff that climaxed in a bloody showdown in the country's largest city, Abidjan.
"The serious crisis that struck Ivory Coast the day after the election ... has been resolved democratically, respecting the will of the people," Ouattara said in a speech after being garlanded with a golden chain, worn by all previous presidents.
"This ceremony today is not about the victory of one side over another," he said, "but about rediscovered brotherhood and new beginnings."
Tens of thousands of Ouattara's supporters flooded the normally quiet city overnight, most of them sleeping on the sidewalk for a chance to glimpse the event. Women wore dresses made out of fabric printed with portraits of the 69-year-old Ouattara, while groups of men donned lion masks, symbolizing Ouattara's strength.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived by special flight from Paris, and a United Nations helicopter ferried Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to the event. Both were greeted with cries thanks from the crowd at the ceremony's venue, acknowledging the key military assistance given by France and the U.N. to oust Gbagbo.
After months of failed diplomatic attempts to make Gbagbo step aside, Ouattara accepted the help of a former rebel force which attacked from the north, east and west. The fighters swept across the country, but were unable to pierce the heavy security cordon set up around the presidential residence in Abidjan, the commercial capital and seat of government.
It was only after French and U.N. attack helicopters bombarded the compound, destroying the ruler's arsenal and weakening his defenses that Ouattara's ill-equipped soldiers were able to storm the building and arrest him on April 11.
"This is a historic day for democracy," said Ban as he left the ceremony.
While the event is meant to mark the turning of a page, country experts say there is a long way to go to heal the scars of the past six months. Although he is now free to come and go as he pleases, Ouattara is still holding most Cabinet meetings inside the same hotel where he had been imprisoned by Gbagbo. That's because crews are not yet done removing land mines that were placed at the presidential palace.
In the country's west, aid workers say bodies still clog the wells in the town of Duekoue. Ouattara's fighters are accused of killing hundreds of civilians from an ethnic group allied with Gbagbo when they passed through the town in March. In the same region, human rights workers say residents who voted for Gbagbo are still hiding in swamps fearing for their lives.
And it's been only a few weeks since the sound of gunfire has stopped in Abidjan, the country's largest city, where mercenaries hired by Gbagbo were still being rooted out.
"It would be a huge mistake for the international community to think that humanitarian needs and violence are subsiding just because the political standoff is over," said Louis Falcy, the International Rescue Committee's country director in Ivory Coast. "There are regions still too unsafe for people to return home. And those who never left face instability, attacks and shortages of food."
Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who was one of the mediators appointed by the AU to try to convince Gbagbo to relinquish power, urged Ouattara to focus on unifying the Ivory Coast.
"There is no point in looking back," he said. "Revenge does not pay."
Among the people that slept on the sidewalk in order to see his president be inaugurated was 24-year-old Daho Barke, who had traveled from one of the worst-hit neighborhoods of Abidjan: The street flanking the Republican Guard, the elite army unit that remained loyal to Gbagbo until the bitter end which was bombarded by Mi-24 helicopters.
He said that he spent weeks crouching inside his home. Each time the bombs fell, the plates in his cupboard jumped up and down.
"I wanted to see this day," said Barke. "It's more than a dream to finally see it come true. We suffered so much to get here."
Associated Press Writer Marco Chown Oved contributed to this report from Yamoussoukro.