ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) - The entrance to the morgue is like a mouth through which comesan awful smell. It hits you as far back as the parking lot andmakes your eyes water. From a dozen yards away, it's strong enoughto make you throw up.
What lies inside is proof of mass killings in this once-tranquilcountry of 21 million, where the sitting president is refusing togive way to his successor. Nearly every day since Laurent Gbagbowas declared the loser of the Nov. 28 election, the bodies ofpeople who voted for his opponent have been showing up on the sidesof highways.
Their distraught families have gone from police station topolice station looking for them, but the bodies are hidden in plainsight in morgues turned into mass graves. Records obtained by TheAssociated Press from four of the city's nine morgues show that atleast 113 bullet-ridden bodies have been brought in since theelection. The number is likely much higher because the AP wasrefused access to the five other morgues, including one where theUnited Nations believes as many as 80 bodies were taken.
The bodies are being held hostage and not released to families.Morgue workers say government minders are stationed outside tomonitor what goes in or out.
A list of the dead that the AP was allowed to see on the laptopof a company that manages three downtown morgues shows the bodiesbegan arriving Dec. 1, the night the country's electoral commissionwas due to announce that opposition leader Alassane Ouattara hadwon. The AP also saw legal documents from authorities instructingfuneral homes to pick up bodies found on public roads, and thepaperwork handed to families.
The names of the dead indicate they are largely Muslim and fromthe country's north, the demographic that voted in largest numbersfor Ouattara, himself a Muslim from the north.
"The overwhelming number of victims of political violence inAbidjan were either real or perceived supporters of Ouattara," saidHuman Rights Watch senior researcher Corinne Dufka, the author of areport on the post-election violence. "Many were picked up andkilled simply on the basis of their family name."
Families have been allowed inside the morgues only long enoughto identify their relatives, if at all. They cannot take theirloved ones for burial because the government, still controlled byGbagbo, has not given the go-ahead for autopsies on bodies withbullet wounds. Funeral home directors say the procedure is normallyapproved within 48 hours.
Diaby Madoussou, 40, has been waiting for two months. She foundher husband lying face down on the pavement where he had taken partin a march to support Ouattara, recognized internationally as thewinner of the vote. Ouattara now lives in a hotel under 24-hourUnited Nations protection, its lobby crowded with supporters takingrefuge.
Madoussou turned over her husband's body. He had been shot twicein the ribs.
She took off her pagne and used the wraparound skirt to coverhim. She waited beside him wearing only her underclothes until themorgue sent a car to pick up the body. They handed her a 'fiched'entree,' or entry sheet stating that his body would be stored invault No. 50 in a morgue in the outlying suburb of Anyama.
"They told me that I need to leave the body there. At themorgue. They say I need to wait ... I don't understand. Why won'tthey let me take him?" said Madoussou, who has five children. Shenow spends her days on the floor, her back against the concretewall of her living room, her eyes staring at the other wall.
Many families have only this piece of paper to prove that theirloved ones were killed, because police stations are refusing tofile police reports. Dozens of victims were seen dragged from theirhomes and forced into official vehicles.
Gbagbo's government has denied committing any abuses. However,assistant state prosecutor Jean-Claude Aboya conceded thatautopsies have not been conducted.
"We're aware of these bodies in the morgues," said Aboya. "Thechief prosecutor has told us that there will be an investigation,but he's holding off until things are calmer beforeproceeding."
Bodies have also been found on highways, freeway medians andtrash heaps, and in the lagoons coursing through this palm-linedcommercial capital that was once considered among the most stablein Africa.
It has been anything but that since Gbagbo came to power 10years ago. He signed an alphabet soup of treaties named after thenumerous capitals from Lome to Pretoria to Ouagadougou wheremediators tried to coax Gbagbo to hold an election. He succeeded inpushing back the election for five years until it was finally heldlast fall.
In the meantime, a civil war broke out and the country'slagoon-side cafes emptied out. The fighting pitted northerners whowanted Gbagbo out against southerners
who supported him.
Now the shores of the glassy lagoon lap up trash. The few cafeclients left are nearly all men, because those who could sent theirwives abroad to shield them from the waves of political violencethat crash down on this Italy-sized country every time Gbagbo feelscornered.
A confidential 2004 United Nations report obtained by the APdetailed the rise of government death squads that in 2002 startedcarrying out 'disappearances' of people seen as threats to Gbagbo.The United Nations obtained a video cassette showing as many as 200cadavers strewn across the road in one locality.
There was a ripple of hope when the election finally went ahead,especially after Gbagbo promised to abide by results issued by theelectoral commission. As soon as results began trickling in,however, foreign TV stations were ordered off the air, and the headof the commission began receiving death threats.
The first bodies to be registered at one downtown morgue wereunidentified. They all appear in the morgue's records as 'Mr.X.'
Thirty-eight-year-old Abdoulaye Coulibaly, who worked for apolitical nonprofit aligned with Ouattara, was in an open-airrestaurant when soldiers surrounded it.
"They started to shoot and people started running," said hiscousin, who pieced together what happened from other clients.Coulibaly was grabbed along with a colleague and put in the truck."To this day, there is no trace of him ... We searched everywhere,"said the cousin, Moussa Coulibaly.
The death squads made repeated trips to Abobo, a majority Muslimsuburb that voted in large numbers for Ouattara. Gbagbo is anevangelical Christian who is accused of having purged Muslims fromthe armed forces.
The men came to Amidou Ouattara's house early in themorning.
"It was on the 13th of December. At 5:30 a.m. He was coming backfrom having done his morning prayer, and there were already twocars parked in front. A 4-by-4. And a Mercedes," said relativeMouriba Ouattara. "They surrounded him and put him in the Mercedes.It was gray. No plates.'"
"We looked everywhere. I went to the morgue at Yopougon. To theone in Anyama. Treichville. We turned over all the bodies," hesaid. "But we did not see his."
The United Nations estimates that more than 100 people havedisappeared and at least 296 have been killed, based on calls to aU.N. hotline from family members. They cannot investigate becauseGbagbo ordered the U.N. to leave the country after it certifiedOuattara's victory.
The hotline also received reports of a mass grave containingbetween 60 to 80 bodies in the suburb of Ndottre. The U.N. twicetried to get to the site but was blocked by the army, and at onepoint military trucks chased the U.N. convoy at high speed.Witnesses later called to say they saw the bodies being moved tothe morgue of Anyama, which the U.N. was not allowed to enter.
"The fact that we have been prevented twice from conducting afact-finding mission in Ndottre and Anyama suggests that there maybe some truth in the alleged existence of a mass grave in that areaand/or deposit of 60 to 80 corpses at a mortuary in Anyama," wrotethe head of the U.N.'s human rights division in an internal reportleaked to the AP.
The AP attempted multiple times to gain access to the principalmorgues, only to be refused entry. On one attempt, the reporter wastold she would need an 'authorization letter,' but nobody could sayfrom whom.
Workers at the morgues who agreed to speak were visibly panickedand would only do so away from their place of work. They said thebodies are quickly deteriorating because they have not yet beenembalmed, a procedure done after the autopsy. One morgue directorsaid so many corpses are arriving that they have created a 'sallede catastrophe,' or catastrophe room, to hold the overflow.
At one funeral home, a man in plainclothes interrupted areporter's conversation with an employee to ask why she was there.He loitered until she left, appearing to confirm reports that thefacilities are under government surveillance.
With hardly anybody allowed in and no bodies allowed out of themorgue, families are left to grieve however they can.
When the morgue took her husband's body away, Madoussou kept hisblood-splattered sneakers. Unable to wash her husband's body, as isthe custom before burial here, the widow washes and re-washes hisshoes instead.
She has washed them so many times that they are as white assnow.
Associated Press writer Marco Chown Oved contributed to thisreport.