Okechukwu Uwaezuoke and Olawale Olaleye
From where we stood beside the hotel called Etoile du Sud, the reporters felt the sullen silence hanging around the beach. Save for the tell-tale presence of a posse of armed uniformed security personnel, scattered here and there along the sandy stretch, the place was otherwise deserted. Upturned tables and seats of a beach-side maquis further bore witness to the gruesome terrorist attacks of last Sunday on revellers at the palm tree-fringed beach town, called Grand-Bassam.
Many had seen the six Arabic-speaking men, who spoke no French, arrive that busy Sunday afternoon. According to eyewitness accounts, the heavily armed, balaclava-clad terrorists had shouted “Allah Akbar” before they opened fired on the hotel’s guests and other revellers at the beach as well as another oceanfront resort called La Taverne Bassamoise. By the time the dust raised by their heinous mission cleared, the official death toll was put at 22 (including the six gunmen, two soldiers and 14 civilians) while the populace reeled with incomprehension.
But a few of the Grand-Bassam residents would beg to differ. There couldn’t have been less than 50 victims of the massacre, some locals affirmed. One of the locals, who spoke on condition of anonymity, disclosed that the terrorists pursued some of their victims into the sea, shooting some of them even before they were swallowed by the surging waves. Among those shot were locals and foreigners, as well as women and children. The gunmen also killed two members of the Ivorian Special Forces who arrived afterwards.
Their killing spree stopped when the security forces arrived and were said to have fatally shot the assailants. Yet, some among the locals disputed this assertion. According to them, the fleeing terrorists shot one of their own who was wounded during a gun battle with the security forces.
Zonga Halidou, a guard at the hostelry La Taverne Bassamoise, said he first heard sharp reports believed to the gunshots coming from the direction of Etoile du Sud. Then, he saw people running towards him. He opened the gate of an adjoining compound to the tavern to admit as many people as he could. But this was only until about two terrorists arrived at the inn next door.
Issa Yero, who owns a crafts stall at a street corner, sensed danger when he saw people running helter-skelter. He quickly closed his shop and hid somewhere in his shop until the pandemonium had subsided.
Several among the patrons of a restaurant fled the scene leaving behind their personal effects, which they were yet to come back for after three days. Indeed, no vendor or reveller had since gone anywhere near the beach.
The proprietor of Etoile du Sud, Jacques Able, at the scene of terrorists’ first attack which claimed at least one victim, confirmed that the hotel was open for business even when there were no guests. But this would not be without prior special precautions aimed at ensuring the guests’ security.
Even a day prior to President Alassane Ouatara’s visit to Grand Bassam on Wednesday, efforts were still being made to clean up the blood-stained sand of the beach.
The attack, for which Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility, would be the third consecutive onslaught of its kind in a West African country, following the first in Mali and the second in Burkina Faso in recent months. Even so, so many of the locals chafed with incomprehension.
Grand-Bassam, a littoral town less than an hour’s drive east of Abidjan, was formerly the French colonial capital city from 1893 to 1896. Subsequently in 1896, the colonial administration was transferred to Bingerville.
But it remained a key seaport of the country until the growth of Abidjan from the 1930s. Its status as a tourist destination only began in the late 1970s. It would later become a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012 in homage to its grander colonial buildings, some of which have been restored. Its Cathédrale Sacré Cœur and the Ivory Coast National Museum of Costume are among its notable tourist sites besides its beaches.
Its shell-shocked, otherwise friendly, residents have understandably become wary of strangers, especially back-packers. For the rest of the country’s citizens, the Sunday terrorist attacks are a grim reminder of its sporadic bloody civil war, which badly hurt the economy of the West African country.
Nonetheless, this was a terrifying experience no one had imagined would ever happen here. For the country’s tourism industry, this was a deadly blow.