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Waiting for Blé Goudé

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- With the spirit of peace seemingly breaking out in this country, I thought it would be instructive to speak with Charles Blé Goudé, leader of the pro-government Young Patriots militia. Best known for rousing his charges against the United Nations, France, journalists and the political opposition, whom they have attacked, he is redefining his image after the signing of the Ouagadougou peace agreement. After deriding the rebel New Forces as French puppets, Blé Goudé recently visited Bouake, their stronghold, in what he probably believed was a goodwill gesture.

He should not have been too difficult for me to find since the U.N. slapped a travel ban on him in 2006 as one of three individuals blocking efforts to end Ivory Coast's civil war. Also, Blé Goudé, who spent a year studying in England, has arguably never met a microphone or tape recorder that he did not like.

I asked Alain Toussaint, an aide to President Laurent Gbagbo, for a number for Blé Goudé. I figured he might have one since when I was last in the country in November 2006, Toussaint took me inside the headquarters of the pro-Gbagbo National Congress of Resistance for Democracy to meet Appia Kabran, a vice president; while there, I noticed a placard for Blé Goudé. Toussaint gave me a number for the intriguingly-named Pierre le Mauvais (the bad, the nasty, the wicked) of Matin L'Abidjan, a pro-government newspaper. That name was my first harbinger of bad luck, the second being when Kabran told me Blé Goudé is a tough guy to track down.

Having made no progress for two days, I returned to Toussaint again who supplied me with more numbers. They eventually led me to an interlocutor, Djimou. After explaining my desire to speak with "the president" of the Young Patriots for my clients, Djimou rewarded me with a day, Saturday, for the interview. No time, nor location was given. Those remaining details were teased out the next day; I was to show up at 8 a.m. at the Pharmacy Bellair intersection in Youpougon, a huge suburb of Abidjan.

I showed up at the appointed time. A white Honda came by a few minutes later, and its driver pointed at me to get in the car. From there, he took me to Blé Goudé's house, which looked rather large and well-protected from the roadside. Tire-laden roadblocks sat on both sides of the compound; two guards -- the first wore military fatigues, the other a t-shirt, jeans and flip-flops -- armed with Kalishnakovs patrolled in front.

I waited some more before being told to enter a 4 x 4 with leather seats. The driver, Serge, then took me to the headquarters of the Young Patriots, whose activity resembled that of youth organizations anywhere. It had an outdoor tent with blue plastic chairs. Young people wearing t-shirts with pro-peace slogans moved around as uptempo music blasted from the speakers. I was ushered inside and told to sit down. Serge delivered the bad news: "Not today," he said. He gave me his number and instructed me to call him at nine o'clock the next morning. His insistence indicated the interview would happen. I suppose I might have felt more comfortable if one of my drivers hadn't pointed out Blé Goudé riding in a car headed in the opposite direction at one point during the morning.

On Sunday, feeling optimistic, I called Serge at the appointed time. His answering service advised callers to leave a message, which I did. I then waited. I called Serge again and waited some more. With panic setting in, I turned to Djimou with the faint hope of receiving some kind of help. He gave me a number to call, which I did. I made an impassioned speech about how Djimou gave me the number because it was important to find out what Blé Goudé's position was on peace, given the changing situation. My respondent answered succinctly: "I'm not Blé Goudé." Nor did he know Djimou.

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