Witness recalls Ivory Coast attack: ‘Shooting, then boom, boom, boom’

(DAKAR, Senegal)

It was nothing short of miraculous. Somehow, during the two hours she endured in a stuffy, crowded hotel bathroom in Grand-Bassam, Ivory Coast, 1-year-old Elinor did not make a sound as gunmen carried out a bloody rampage just outside the door.

In the end, she was spared, along with her mother, Charline Burton, who works for an organization devoted to stopping the kind of violent extremism that was unfolding on the other side of the bathroom door.

“I was so terrified myself, and terrified she would start screaming and get us all killed,” Ms. Burton said in an interview on Monday, less than 24 hours after the attack that killed 15 civilians and three members of the security forces in Grand-Bassam, a seaside resort 30 miles from the country’s economic capital, Abidjan. “I don’t know how it happened, but she did not cry.”

On Monday, military and police officers were swarming Grand-Bassam, which is normally known for its colonial architecture, looking for evidence that would help explain how such an assault had unfolded in Ivory Coast.

Interior Minister Hamed Bakayoko said on Monday that 33 people had been wounded, and that most of them were still hospitalized. Lawmakers have responded to the attack by adopting measures strengthening security along the border, as well as at schools, embassies, the offices of international organizations and diplomatic residences.

According to the president’s office, six militants were killed in the attack. The authorities have also found what they say appears to be the cellphone of one of the gunmen.

An affiliate of Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, claimed responsibility in a statement released after the attack on Sunday afternoon.

West Africa has been the target of several high-profile assaults by groups with ties to Al Qaeda that have killed dozens and wounded many more. In January, militants attackedthe Splendid Hotel and Cappuccino Cafe in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. Gunmen also attacked the Radisson Blu hotelin Bamako, Mali, in November. The French authorities had warned that Ivory Coast, as well as Senegal, were vulnerable.

In the hours after the Grand-Bassam attack, expressions of outrage poured in from France, the United States and other countries, castigating the ruthlessness of the assault, whose victims included sunbathers and people gathered for a beachside Sunday brunch.

The identities of the civilians who were killed have not been released by the authorities, but officials counted among the dead Ivorians and other Africans, as well as Europeans. The resorts drew a crowd of locals and expatriates.

On Monday, the Goethe Institute in Abidjan confirmed the death of Henrike Grohs, a German who was the director of the institute and a member of the large art community in the city.

Tributes to Ms. Grohs, who was described as a cultural ambassador to Ivory Coast, were posted on Facebook, one saying she “breathed and disseminated the joie de vivre, to whose who knew her, sharing the beautiful, the good, the true.”

It was early in the afternoon on a sunny day when gunmen stormed the beaches of at least three hotels — L’Étoile du Sud, the Wharf and Koral Beach — where people were swimming and enjoying a poolside buffet.

What had been a palm-lined, peaceful scene turned into a bloody tableau, with gunshot victims crawling across patios, sunbathers sprinting to safety and bodies strewn across the blood-soaked sand. A child was among the victims, witnesses said.

Ms. Burton, a regional manager at Search for Common Ground, a group that works against violent extremism, her husband and their two young daughters had gone to Grand-Bassam to get out of the city, a trip they made every couple of weeks, she said. The Belgian family tried a new beach on Sunday, at the Nouvelle Paillote hotel, not far from the Wharf.

Just as the family was finishing lunch at the hotel restaurant, they heard what sounded like shooting. The couple gathered their children and hid in the kitchen, but the cooks assured them that there was no need to worry, and the noise soon stopped.

The family went back to their table, ate dessert and asked for the check. Then the shooting started again, louder this time, and much closer. A worker hustled them into a small room off the kitchen where they hid with a few other terrified guests. Then staff members started yelling, “They’re coming!”

“We could hear shooting, then boom, boom, boom,” said Ms. Burton, who speculated that the louder noise had been from grenades.

The family decided to sprint to a safer place. Ms. Burton took Elinor’s hand, and her husband grabbed that of the couple’s other daughter, Marion, age 2. In the confusion, the parents lost each other.

Marion, terrified and sobbing, and her father ended up hiding in a hotel room with a group of other people after pounding on the door and convincing them that they were not terrorists.

Ms. Burton, dragging Elinor, ran into a hallway lined with three toilet cubicles. She opened the first door she came to. Two people, an older man who was a tourist and a local teenager, were already inside the small, sweltering room. She stuffed herself and Elinor inside.

From the bathroom, Ms. Burton sent text messages to her husband as guns were fired outside. She could see through a tiny window that men were walking past the toilets. Sweat was dripping down everyone in the stifling room. Elinor was silent.

At one point, the shooting quieted, and a man and woman in the toilet cubicle next to hers walked outside. But Ms. Burton’s group decided to stay where they were.

In all, they waited two hours in the small bathroom until soldiers arrived and told everyone it was safe to come out.

When she emerged, Ms. Burton said she saw a dead soldier on the ground. She also spotted the worker who had shown them into their first hiding place off the kitchen. He was covered in the blood of another woman who had stayed behind to hide there. The terrorists had found her and killed her.

Later, Ms. Burton came across the man in the adjacent toilet cubicle who had ventured out. He showed her his torn pant leg where a bullet had grazed it. The woman who left with him had been shot.

On Monday, Ms. Burton reflected on the bloody afternoon in Grand-Bassam, the very kind of violence that she spends her workdays trying to stop. People without jobs and without hope are angry, she said, and they are easy recruits for terrorist organizations.

“People don’t have an option to make their life a success, so they turn to violence because they don’t know what else to do,” she said.

Ms. Burton’s organization has concentrated on peace-building work largely outside Ivory Coast, but now it will turn its attention there as well. “It makes our work more relevant,” she said.

(Source: NYTIMES)

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