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An Anatomy of a Mortar Attack: Case Study – Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire

‘Aujourd`hui, aucun quartier de la commune n’est épargné par les obus.’ (Today, no part of the town is spared by the shells). 

Abobo, northern commune of Abidjan. Source: Google Maps.

On 17 March 2011, Tahïrou went to the Siaka Kone market with his mother to sell potato leaves. As he approached the market, he saw a great commotion, heard gunfire and a series of loud explosions. He fled. The next day Tahïrou returned to Siaka Kone market, the ground was stained with blood, half of the shops had been destroyed, and he saw a large crater, perhaps 2 or 3 meters deep and one meter wide. Tahïrou, a teenager at the time, would later take up arms to protect his family from the violence. 

Tahïrou, now 26 years old, interviewed by AOAV, recalled the shelling of Abobo – an attack that was to be determined a crime against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC). 

On 17 March 2011 at 12:30 PM troops aligned to Laurent Gbagbo fired at least six shells on Abobo, a commune in the north of Abidjan. The shells landed in three main locations: Siaka Kone market, behind the rail-road tracks (Abobo Derrière Rail sector), and in the SOS Children’s Village area. The ICC trial concluded that the shells were fired from Camp Commando, by Gbagbo’s FDS (Defence and Security Forces).  Other sources, including AOAV’s interviewees, said that the shells were reportedly deployed from an armoured vehicle which came from Camp Commando. Image: Approximate location of where the shells landed (skull and crossbones) and Camp commando (lighting bolt). Source: Google MyMaps. 

The mortar attack was not an isolated assault, accompanied by shooting and according to some reports, tank fire. The first shells landed on Abobo SOS, with some witnesses reporting three shells and other four, and two shells reportedly landed on Siaka Kone market. 

The shelling of Abobo took place in the context of the post-electoral violence in the Côte d’Ivoire after the disputed 2010 elections. The incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara both declared themselves President after the November elections, despite the Independent Election Commission (IEC), the UN, EU, and African Union all recognising Ouattara as having defeated Gbagbo at the ballot box with 54% of the votes. Sporadic outbreaks of violence followed between the army and militias led by Gbagbo and pro-Ouattara forces, which escalated in March 2011 in the Battle for Abidjan. The shelling of Abobo on 17 March was one of the three charges of crimes against humanity brought against Laurent Gbagbo and Charles Blé Goudé by the International Criminal Court. At the time of the attack, Abobo was considered to be an Ouattara stronghold- Camp Commando was the only part of Abobo still controlled by Gbagbo forces.

Nicknamed “Baghdad” Abobo is a “town within a town, with a population of over a million”. Today, two million people live in Abobo and it is the most densely populated and impoverished commune of Abidjan (see Figure 5). Abobo is home to almost all ethnic groups in the Côte d’Ivoire with a large migrant population from ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) nations. Indeed, one of the civilians who died in the mortar attack on 17 March was a Senegalese man who suffered penetrating injuries to his stomach. 

Abobo is a densely populated commune, this satellite image of Abobo was taken on the same day as the shelling, 17 March 2011. Source: Google Earth.

The United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) examined the projectiles fired on Abobo and confirmed that they were 81-mm mortar shells. The 81-mm mortar is a medium weapon system, lightweight enough to manoeuvre through challenging terrain while providing accurate indirect fire. Depending on the model, the warhead weighs approximately 4000g with 750 – 900 kg of high explosive. Fragmentation from the 81-mm can travel 250m² and it has a minimum range of 100m and a maximum range of 5500m. A medium mortar, such as the 81-mm, has a maximum rate of fire of around 30 rounds per minute. Such weapons were within the state security weaponry at the time, as revealed by a UN Group of Experts on Côte d’Ivoire in February 2010, during an interview with the Small Arms Survey. 

Camp Commando d’Abobo. Source: Verity Hubbard, 2021.

During the conflict Abobo was isolated, cut off from Abidjan by a series of checkpoints operated by pro-Gbagbo and pro-Ouattara forces. Seyi Rhodes, a journalist who covered the war on the ground and gave evidence to the ICC, told AOAV that Abobo was impossible to reach because of checkpoints, making it difficult for aid agencies to gain access. There was a general impression, Rhodes explained to AOAV, that if you go to Abobo you were going to die. 

Abobo Derrière Rail sector. Source: Verity Hubbard, 2021.
Siaka Kone market. Source: Verity Hubbard 2021.
Abobo SOS Children’s Village, one of the shells landed nearby. Source: Verity Hubbard 2021.

Report continues:

Chapter 3: SDG 16 – Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
Chapter 4: SDG 11 – Sustainable Cities and Communities
Chapter 5: SDG 3 – Good Health and Well-Being
Chapter 6: SDG 4 – Quality Education
Chapter 7: Other Considerations
Conclusion and Recommendations

More in this series: An Anatomy of an Explosive Weapon Attack