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Ghana: Red Cross comes to the aid of a town divided by inter-tribal fighting

26-08-2008 Feature

Clashes between the Mamprusi and Kusasi tribes in the northern Ghanaian town of Bawku have left many people in fear of their lives and separated from their livelihoods. The Red Cross has stepped in to help them through these trying times.

  ©ICRC/M. Agyemang    
A victim of violence receives oil supplied by the ICRC through Ghanaian Red Cross volunteers.    
  ©ICRC/M. Agyemang    
A man overwhelmed by the sight of what remains of his home.    

" I couldn't believe we could be so violent to each other, " recalls Abdulaye Talaga, a resident of Bawku, who recounts his memories of the inter-tribal fighting which has riven his town in northern Ghana in recent months. " We couldn't even recognize some of the corpses because of the heavy wounds inflicted. Even children were not spared. "

Between 20 and 30 s and Kusasi tribespeople have been killed and many more injured since December 2007. Around 250 houses have been burnt to the ground by mobs, forcing their inhabitants to flee to the relative safety of ‘their’ part of town. The Mamprusi are concentrated in the central part of Bawku town and the Kusasi on its outskirts.

 Too afraid to flee  

" We cannot farm our fields, " explains Gabianna Gbewa, a Mamprusi woman who lost her brother, the family's breadwinner, during the June clashes. " We are afraid to leave town at all as they might kill us, " she says. The Kusasi too are afraid. Most do not enter town for fear of attack. That means that they do not have access to the town's hospital or schools.

The Ghana Red Cross Society, with the support of the ICRC, has to date organized two distributions of food aid to over 5,000 victims of the fighting. Each household has received 120 kilograms of maize, 40 kilograms of beans, 20 litres of oil and 2 kilograms of salt.

" This food aid from the Red Cross does not replace our regular income, " stresses Gabianna, " but at least it is helping us survive these difficult times. I do not know what I would have do ne without it. No one else is helping us. "

 Drawing attention to under-reported violence  

" We know that this is the tip of the iceberg, " explains Jean-Jacques Tshamala, the ICRC's regional delegate based in Abidjan. " Through our involvement, we are hoping to draw the attention of other humanitarian organizations to the plight of the victims of this under-reported violence. "

The recent upsurge of conflict between the Mamprusi and Kusasi turns on the succession of a traditional chieftaincy, with implications for land rights. It began in December 2007, with new flare-ups in March and June this year. There are widespread concerns that the violence could escalate in the coming months, especially during the December presidential election.

" Fortunately, the authorities are aware of the problem and have done their best to contain the violence with a heavy deployment of security forces, " says Ghana Red Cross President Stephen Adei, who travelled north to launch the distribution. " On the other hand, the curfews which have been imposed since fighting broke out have also hampered economic activity. That is where we come in, to tide these people over the empty months till the harvests in October. "

" There have been many innocent victims in this conflict, " says Municipal Chief Executive Abdulai Abanga. " Just because they belong to one tribe or the other, their children have been killed, their houses have been destroyed and they are scared to move about. We are urging the respective community leaders to exercise restraint. If there are grievances, then they must address them through the proper channels, not in the street with automatic rifles and machetes. There can be no winner in such a conflict. On the contrary, everyone loses. "

Akologo Francis Amwa, a Red Cross volunteer overseeing aid distribution in his area, speaks about his involvement during the fighting: " Of course I was scared, but we had a job to do. That is what we were trained for. Fortunately, everyone knew and respected the Red Cross emblem on our jackets. We were actually the only ones who could move about freely. "

 Vigilance is the order of the day despite relative calm  

Ayakya Mbelliba, a resident in the Kusasi area of Bawku whose brother was killed and whose house was burnt down in June, gives testimony to the work done by the volunteers from the Ghana Red Cross: " They did the best they could, evacuating victims to the hospital under curfew and crossing the lines between the two communities. We knew they were on everyone's side. "

" The situation in Bawku is calm at this juncture, " says Jean-Jacques Tshamala, " but we must remain vigilant. The violence could easily flare up again. That is why we are working with the Ghana Red Cross to strengthen the humanitarian response capacity of the Bawku and Bolgatanga branches. The ICRC will continue monitoring the situation closely, ready to respond if necessary. "