At the turn of the new millennium, the once prosperous West African country of Côte d’Ivoire embarked on a decade that would see an enduring economic and political crisis degenerate further into armed conflict. The fall from grace of the Ivorian miracle of stability and prosperity was to the detriment of people not only in Côte d’Ivoire but across a subregion that has relied heavily on the Ivorian plantation economy for the better part of a century.1 With the notable exception of Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire is surrounded by countries with a history of political instability and armed conflict (Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea) and with some of the world’s poorest economies (Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger). In Burkina Faso in particular, the livelihoods of many depend on the opportunities for seasonal and more permanent forms of labor migration to Côte d’Ivoire.
Following the descent into armed conflict in Côte d’Ivoire in the early 2000s, when the failed coup d’état of the northern Forces Nouvelles rebels effectively divided the country in two, labor migrants and long-settled immigrant families were forced to return to their country of origin. While the Ivorian crisis to a large extent revolved around notions of autochthony and belonging that singled out Burkinabe strangers as particularly unwanted in the nationalist rhetoric of Ivoirité, the return to Burkina Faso of citizens who had primarily lived for most of their lives in Côte d’Ivoire was perceived in rather ambivalent terms, as movement from one state of exclusion to another.
This article explores the dynamics between labor migration and forced displacement in the context of the Ivorian armed conflict. Through a conceptual discussion of these dynamics, it is suggested that movements between Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire in the context of armed conflict are best understood in terms of social and cultural continuity of historical mobility practices, and that wartime mobilities more generally are characterized by complex and changeable social practices. The article explores subjective experiences of displacement in the context of radical changes and events. In this regard, the concept of emplacement is invoked to capture the quest for continuity and belonging that is at stake in displacement. Following the conceptual discussion in the introduction to this theme section, emplacement signifies a continuous process of “engagement and entanglement with the lived environment,” the structural and existential implications of which must be explored empirically rather than assumed (see Englund 2002; Jansen and Löfving 2009). This attention to the overlaps between rupture and continuity—in terms of both migrant trajectories and the associated feelings of home and belonging—emphasizes the existential and social implications of migrant practice in everyday life, which more often than not blur the conceptual boundaries between labor migration and forced displacement.
The empirical research that informs this article is based on 10 months of ethnographic fieldwork in the neighborhood of Sarfalao in Bobo-Dioulasso, in southern Burkina Faso, where many displaced returnees settled during the turbulent decade of the Ivorian political conflict. Data collection took place during the period January to December 2010, with a methodological emphasis on a combination of life histories and participant observation. The analysis also draws on three shorter fieldwork periods in Korhogo in northern Côte d’Ivoire (approximately 10 weeks in total).
Between Labor Migration and Forced Displacement
Despite the different interests of refugee studies and studies of labor migration, scholars of both genres have argued for their convergence on important points—for example, regarding the way in which migrant aspirations influence the trajectories and practices of people on the move (Agier 2011; Jackson 2002; Jansen 2008; Lubkemann 2008b; Riester 2011a). Within both fields, moreover, return migration has tended to be viewed as “an act of unproblematic and natural reinsertion in the local or national community once left behind” (Stefansson 2004: 5). This sedentarist view of a “natural” connection between people and place has been the subject of much debate (see, e.g., Appadurai 1996; Gupta and Ferguson 1992; Jansen and Löfving 2009; Malkki 1992).2 Here the concept of home, it is often argued, is assumed a priori rather than explored empirically. This is problematic both conceptually and in terms of humanitarian policy implications. For example, the tendency to take the meaning of “home” for granted as fixed in space and time may jeopardize the security and well-being of refugees as they are sent “back” to a situation that may be more distressing than the one that caused their displacement in the first place (Black and Koser 1999: 6–7). Furthermore, refugees themselves are capable of exerting their own agency within and despite the formal structures of humanitarian intervention (Malkki 1995; Turner 2010). Ethnographic research has thereby consistently documented how the distinction between forced and economically motivated migration is rarely clear-cut, with the implication that while blanket categorizations of some mobility practices as refugee displacement and others as labor migration might serve juridico-administrative purposes, they tend to obscure more than they elucidate when it comes to qualitative analysis (Bakewell 2008). The notion of displacement, from this perspective, may be unable to serve as a categorization of particular forms of mobility practices writ large, but recent studies have suggested that the concept may retain its analytical value in researching empirically how processes of homemaking and subjective feelings of belonging become disrupted or challenged by other actors or by larger structural forces. Displacement, then, is not primarily about whether or not a movement came about intentionally, or in the form envisioned by the migrant, but is rather about the social and existential consequences of a significant mobility-related change in the social landscape (Lubkemann 2008a: 193). Approaching displacement as a life-rupturing form of mobility (Barrett 2009: 95) invites a detailed empirical investigation of specific histories and experiences of mobility, without the need for overall categorizations of migrants or their movements.
Implicit in these anthropological approaches to displacement is an attention to place or locality as a locus for people’s quest for belonging. Here locality should not be reduced to its spatial dimensions, but should rather be understood as “a continuous process of … the sitedness of belonging … [,] constantly re-enacted in order to transcend (and simultaneously allow) the vagaries of migration, of movement and of existential uncertainties” (Lovell 1998: 10). Although this constructivist understanding of locality is well-established (cf. Massey 1994: 115), I apply the concept of emplacement in this article to emphasize the processual nature of locality, evoking a contested site for the articulation of belonging. Jansen and Löfving conceptualize emplacement “as the point where subjects’ capacities to put themselves and others into place articulate with the power relations that unequally distribute this capacity” (2009: 13). In this understanding, emplacement signifies a social positioning that enables the pursuit of existentially meaningful life-making, but as an ongoing struggle for access, rather than as a fixed position or status. In this way, the pursuit of a meaningful existence may be articulated as influenced by intertwined processes of emplacement and displacement.
This conceptualization allows for a more nuanced analysis of, for example, the generational differences in subjective experiences of displacement. In the following section, the generational variations in subjective experiences of displacement are explored through the narrative of Ibrahim and the narrative and everyday life of his mother, Fatou, after their involuntary return to Burkina Faso during the Ivorian crisis. These experiences illustrate the structural differentiations of displacement within a single family, and point to a processual anthropological analysis of the dialectics between displacement and emplacement.
Displaced Back Home
Despite summary reports of specific outbursts of violence,3 there seems to be no reliable assessment of the total number of refugees from Côte d’Ivoire to Burkina Faso. As Mahamadou Zongo has noted, this is surprising, since these movements have had a significant impact on public debates regarding the role of the Burkinabe diaspora (Zongo 2010a: 11).4 Tentative estimates, however, range from 500,000 to 1 million forced returns between 2002 and 2006 (see, e.g., Boswell 2010: 10; Zongo 2010b: 25). As early as the Tabou massacres, in which more than a hundred Burkinabe workers in the cacao plantation sector were killed following a dispute between a Burkinabe worker and a local planter in September 1999, the changing attitude toward Burkinabe immigrants in Côte d’Ivoire provoked the forced return of Burkinabe migrants on a scale that was visibly different from the long-established flow of returning migrants who had concluded their circular paths, had gone on shorter or longer visits, or had been forced to return due to personal misfortune. As the persecution of Burkinabe “strangers” in Côte d’Ivoire intensified after Laurent Gbagbo’s contested electoral victory in 2000, so did the flows of returnees, who left their plantations, wage employment, or small businesses behind in Côte d’Ivoire and returned to their country of origin in growing numbers.
This migratory scenario, of bursts of movement in reaction to localized peaks in fighting, fits well with the view from ethnographically based studies of war. These imply that, rather than the full-scale, all-encompassing combat often imagined, “many wars are long periods of (uneasy) peace interrupted by occasional eruptions of violence” (Richards 2005: 5). In addition to larger refugee movements in reaction to localized acts or threats of aggression, the less visible “trickle” of refugees in response to more indirect aspects of the conflict—including rumors of imminent attacks, social tensions in their area of residence in Côte d’Ivoire, and deteriorating living standards in both urban and rural parts of the country—has probably been the main form of displacement caused by the Ivorian crisis (see also Boswell 2010: 153). Importantly, this scenario also includes tentative moves back to Côte d’Ivoire, despite the persistent threat of armed aggression and persecution. Many involuntary returnees were unable to find work in Burkina Faso and preferred to try their luck anew, despite the climate of hostility toward immigrants in Côte d’Ivoire. These moves back and forth defy conventional statistical assessment, which is usually based on a certain degree of permanence in the dwelling of migrants, refugees, and nonmigrants alike.
Aside from being administratively invisible, refugees arriving in Burkina Faso by their own means, without the involvement of the Burkinabe authorities, may be said to militate against any clear distinction being drawn between labor migration and forced displacement. Having left Burkina Faso in their youth, older migrants who return involuntarily may be regarded as having come to the (abrupt) end of their labor migration cycle (rather than as being refugees according to the standard definition).5 In Burkina Faso, the prospect of the sudden repatriation of a large part of the Burkinabe diaspora in Côte d’Ivoire—estimated to number approximately 2.2 million, or 15 percent of the total Ivorian population in 2003 (Bredeloup 2006; Zongo 2003)6—caused serious concerns about how to accommodate such large numbers of returning citizens in need of housing and other basic amenities (already scarce in the country), as well as access eventually to cultivable land and other livelihood options. In other words, in the eyes of the Burkinabe authorities the mass return of Burkinabe citizens from Côte d’Ivoire would place a tremendous burden on public resources and on the population in general, potentially turning the profitable flow of remittances into a flow of more or less disenfranchised return migrants.7 Riester notes that the official approach to administering aid to the so-called rapatriés (repatriates) failed not only on account of its weak implementation but also because it caused resentment toward the refugees at the local level: on the one hand, it provided aid to all rapatriés regardless of their specific circumstances and needs; on the other hand, it praised the returning migrants for their resilience and ingenuity vis-à-vis the nonmigrant population (Riester 2011b: 175).
This ambivalence toward the rapatriés in official policies (and the resentment it generated on the ground) is implicit in the actual term rapatrié, which was used by the state and quickly became the common appellation for people known to have returned to Burkina Faso from Côte d’Ivoire in the context of the Ivorian crisis. The term exists in international refugee law terminology, but to denote a much more delimited category of return migrants in relation to UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) repatriation programs (Riester 2011b: 42). What is more relevant than the formal juridical misappropriations in this context is the fact that the state’s ambivalent perception of the rapatriés—as admirable and cosmopolitan role models, yet in need of undifferentiated financial public support—infused the term with negative connotations in the eyes of other citizens, who were already burdened with accommodating the new arrivals in their villages and urban neighborhoods.8
The informal neighborhood of Sarfalao in Bobo-Dioulasso was usually the second or third destination of the rapatriés whom I encountered there in 2010. Most informants said that they had arrived in Burkina Faso with the intention of settling there permanently, rather than returning to Côte d’Ivoire in the event of a perceivable end to the political crisis.9 Following a period of residence with friends or family, most rapatriés moved to Bobo-Dioulasso in search of more permanent residence. New arrivals in the city would be referred to the informal settlement areas (zones non-loties) by acquaintances or family members in the city.
Among the rapatriés in Sarfalao were a significant number of female heads of household (of the 34 women interviewed in more depth, 16 may be said to fit that description), who had either been living apart from their husbands in Côte d’Ivoire or were widows who had spent most or all of their (adult) life in Côte d’Ivoire. They came to Bobo-Dioulasso to escape persecution in the plantation areas or in Abidjan or other main cities of the loyalist part of Côte d’Ivoire. They had lost contact with their husbands, or hardly ever heard from them, and they had certainly lost all hope of receiving financial contributions. Others did see their husbands once or twice a year, and/or received fairly regular remittances from Côte d’Ivoire. Most female returnees had initially made their way to Burkina Faso on their own, with their children—leaving behind their husbands in the common hope that the men would be better able to continue providing for the family from there.
At the age of 47, Fatou had never expected to be scouring the outskirts of Bobo-Dioulasso for firewood, in order to be able to cook and feed her family. Before the war, she had been a successful trader in Abidjan, and her husband worked as a watchman for an American nongovernmental organization (NGO). They had lived in a two-bedroom house in a neighborhood where migrants and Ivorians lived side by side, and where running water and electricity could be taken for granted. The small mud-brick house they had built back home in Burkina Faso was intended as an investment for their old age, not as their only home. But Fatou was not one to complain, and she made an effort to appear smiling and jovial in front of her neighbors. She rarely fell asleep without weeping, though. Her husband in Côte d’Ivoire had been struggling to find work for the previous two years and hardly ever called her and her children—out of embarrassment, she believed. The family received support for the children’s schooling from an international NGO, but the several hundred thousand people displaced by the Ivorian crisis were generally left to their own devices for their survival in Burkina Faso. “We are the rapatriés,” Fatou stated emphatically on our first meeting, “we are everywhere but no one sees us.”
In invoking such claims to refugeehood, many returnees in Sarfalao dwelled more on having been forced “to start over from scratch” in their narratives, than on being labeled as strangers in Côte d’Ivoire or on the aggression against them per se. To Fatou, Sarfalao was far removed from the life she had known in Abidjan. Not only was there no electricity and no running water nearby, but she was used to the routines of her everyday life in Abidjan: she had married there, had her children there, and aged there, and she had always liked the lively atmosphere of the city. Her sense of emplacement in Abidjan had been gradually and cumulatively reinforced through these life-cycle achievements or “vital conjunctures” (Johnson-Hanks 2002). Coming to Sarfalao was like starting from scratch—“commencer à zero.” She knew no one in the neighborhood and only a few of her husband’s relatives in other parts of town. At the same time, the town seemed so small and quiet compared to Abidjan, and in contrast to the anonymous crowds of the big city, you faced people “one-on-one” in Sarfalao, obliging you to greet everyone and face the gossip and disapproval of your neighbors if you were unable to meet their expectations of politeness and respect (Bjarnesen 2015).
But adapting to the new social and material surroundings had not been the toughest challenge to Fatou’s emplacement in Bobo-Dioulasso. Until her husband, Oumar, lost his job in 2006, he had been able to send remittances every month through Western Union. But since then, they had struggled to feed their children, let alone pay for their tuition. Oumar had been to see them in Sarfalao once, in 2005, while he was still employed by the Americans. Following the 2004 riots,10 there had been continuous strikes and protests in Abidjan, and eventually all the white people left. Fatou remembered the day he had called on his brother’s mobile phone to tell her that he was out of a job, saying simply “the work has ended.” He had been very sad that day, and so had she. Before she acquired the mobile phone she now owns, they had had appointed days when she would go to a calling center to call him; so she had known that it was bad news when out of the blue he had called a neighbor in order to reach her. She had prayed that he would get his job back, but so far he had no steady employment and rarely sent remittances to supplement her own meager earnings.
Through remittances, conversation, and shared plans for the future, Fatou and Oumar had been maintaining their household across the Burkina Faso–Côte d’Ivoire transnational space. Despite the involuntary nature and violent circumstances of Fatou’s return, in many ways it resembled the transnationalism that was initiated during the colonial period, when a lone male migrant would seek work in the Ivorian south, while his wife acted as de facto head of household back home, relying on the remittances of the absent migrant, as well as on her own resourcefulness (Cordell, Gregory, and Piché 1996). But when Oumar lost his employment in Abidjan, became unable to contribute to the household economy, and cut off regular communication with Fatou, her sense of impoverishment and desolation deepened considerably. Not only was she living in humble conditions in a house without electricity or running water, in a city where she was relatively isolated socially, but now she had lost the prospect of receiving economic and moral support from her husband. Rather than investing in the long-term emplacement of her family, Fatou’s sense of agency was therefore reduced to the tactics of day-to-day survival (cf. de Certeau 1984). If displacement is understood not as involuntary mobility in and of itself, but as the “radical disruption that deteriorates the actor’s relation to the social terrain,” as the introduction to this theme section suggests, then Oumar’s retraction of communication and financial support may be said to have contributed to Fatou’s deepening sense of displacement. The following section considers how these variable processes of displacement may differ even within families. Though the itinerary of involuntary movement from Côte d’Ivoire to Burkina Faso may be the same, the generational stratification of displacement evokes a conceptual move from the displaced as a population to displacement as a process.
The forced displacement to Burkina Faso of children born in Côte d’Ivoire to Burkinabe migrant parents posed a categorical challenge to the migrants themselves, as well as to the receiving communities in Burkina Faso (Bjarnesen 2014). Most second-generation migrants I met in Bobo-Dioulasso had been born in the hinterland of an urban center in Côte d’Ivoire that eventually became their home, once they reached schooling age. Their parents had generally spent several years in Côte d’Ivoire, establishing their own coffee or cacao plantations, creating a livelihood in the city’s informal sector, or working the land of more established migrants or Ivorian landowners.11
In Fatou’s family, the feeling of rupture and bereavement caused by their displacement varied among the individual family members, but she was perhaps the one who had experienced the most drastic and negative changes to her social terrain. Her eldest son, Ibrahim, who was attending university in Ouagadougou during the time of my fieldwork, certainly believed so. He told me about the circumstances of his mother’s return to Burkina Faso and the first time he visited her in Sarfalao:
So, I made an effort in 2006, the school holidays 2006, I came to Bobo to visit la vieille.12 In any case, I arrived and really, I was not pleased at all. Because us, we … we live and we know that it is a poverty we are living but when I came to see my mother, I told myself that my poverty, there [in Ouagadougou], is a hundred times better than what she is living here! I had these little problems that I wanted to explain to her. When I saw that, I lost the courage to speak again. I … even to eat, it was a problem. You see, in Côte d’Ivoire, well, in any case, we didn’t … to eat, we didn’t have that problem. If the problems arrived at a point where to eat, it’s a problem, you know that it is very, very serious.
Jesper Bjarnesen: Mmmm, while here, it’s …
Ibrahim: My younger brother, every time he wakes me up, they are arguing about food! Really, it made me … She even … She doesn’t eat.
His mother’s hardships had humbled him. He had come, as most students do, to see his mother and solicit a little extra pocket money for the capital; but seeing his mother living on a subsistence level, with nothing to guarantee the next meal, had left him speechless. His shock stemmed from his comparison of Fatou’s predicament to his own living standards in Ouagadougou, as well as to the life the family was accustomed to in Abidjan. Hunger, back then, was a very rare exception; but for his mother in Sarfalao, it had become the order of the day. To Ibrahim, Fatou’s living conditions in Burkina Faso epitomized refugeehood, echoing her own sentiments of being part of the large group of misrecognized—or “invisible,” as she phrased it—victims of forced displacement. Whereas he could continue his studies under the patronage of his paternal uncle in the capital, his mother was eking out an existence in the slums of Bobo-Dioulasso. What is more, Ibrahim’s sense of emplacement, allowing him to focus on the long-term goal of completing his studies and considering future employment opportunities, was supported not only by the patronage of his uncle but also by his mother’s decision to invest in his education, allocating her sparse resources to that end, despite her own destitution.
While experiences of displacement were generationally differentiated within Fatou’s family in this way, many young adults experienced a process of emplacement in Burkina Faso that was more difficult than that endured by their parents. Most second-generation immigrants to Côte d’Ivoire, like Ibrahim, had had little (if any) appreciation of the implications of their origins outside Côte d’Ivoire until the late 1990s. They had perceived themselves as Ivorians, and had rarely visited—or even contemplated visiting—their parents’ country of origin prior to the Ivorian crisis. Their subjective experiences of displacement, therefore, differed considerably from those of their parents, who were able to draw on idioms of circular migration, as well as their familiarity with Burkinabe standards of social interaction. The young adults, on the contrary, felt decidedly out of place in Bobo-Dioulasso and faced a much more challenging road toward social integration (Bjarnesen 2013; see also Bantenga 2003: 334; Riester 2011b: 111). Young adult returnees in Bobo-Dioulasso expressed multilayered attachment to the home they left behind in Côte d’Ivoire. As second-generation immigrants in Côte d’Ivoire, their move to Burkina Faso was at once articulated as a move “home” to their family origins, and as a move away from the “home” of their upbringing. The contradictions and complexities of this ongoing dialectics of displacement and emplacement were obviously affected by, but cannot be reduced to, the political discourses on national “homes” in and across both countries. This is also true of the experiences of first-generation migrants, who followed well-established paths from Burkina Faso to Côte d’Ivoire in their youth and were later forced to return with the onslaught of armed conflict.
Although exposed to the same persecution in Côte d’Ivoire and the same trajectory of flight to Burkina Faso, the experiences of displacement thus differed significantly across generational lines. These variations included a more profound sense of alienation on the part of young adults, but also situations such as Fatou’s, where members of the parent generation, and often the female heads of household, bore the main burden of social and economic disenfranchisement, while their young adult children were allowed to continue their schooling or engage in informal internships, thereby investing in the process of emplacement in Bobo-Dioulasso. Fatou’s sense of persistent displacement, on the contrary, was also clear from the fact that she continued to contemplate a future move away from Sarfalao—back to Côte d’Ivoire, or possibly back to her village of origin in northwestern Burkina Faso. Ibrahim (and most of the other young adults I met in Bobo-Dioulasso), on the other hand, was intent on staying in the city and making the best of the new circumstances.
The following section considers a different trajectory of wartime mobility across the Burkina Faso–Côte d’Ivoire transnational space. It argues that, despite their shorter absence from Burkina Faso, Burkinabe combatants in the Forces Nouvelles rebel group (which occupied the northern half of Côte d’Ivoire up until the inauguration of the current Ivorian president, Alassane Ouattara) experienced similar feelings of displacement on their return.
In addition to the movement of involuntary returnees from Côte d’Ivoire to Burkina Faso, the Ivorian crisis added a new movement to the flows across the Ivorio-Burkinabe border, namely, that of young Burkinabe men joining the rebel forces of the Forces Nouvelles against the Gbagbo regime in Côte d’Ivoire. This cross-border recruitment was not only hazardous for the recruits, who generally had no prior experience or military training, it was also a potentially dangerous political issue on both sides of the border—in terms of the illicit border transgressions as well as in terms of the identity politics in Côte d’Ivoire and the diplomatic crisis between the two neighbors (Hagberg and Bjarnesen 2011).
A central aspect of the identity politics of the ivoirité rhetoric in Côte d’Ivoire, which gained momentum during the 1990s and was exploited by the Gbagbo regime during the 2000s, was to make northerners out to be foreigners and the Forces Nouvelles movement to be a foreign invasion, rather than a party in a civil war (Dembélé 2002; McGovern 2011). This made the presence of Burkinabe recruits within the rebel ranks potentially problematic for the legitimacy of the Forces Nouvelles. President Gbagbo’s allegations that Burkina Faso’s president, Blaise Compaoré, was supporting the rebels similarly made any Burkinabe affiliation with the Forces Nouvelles a diplomatic liability for the Burkinabe authorities (Hagberg and Bjarnesen 2011). In spite of this precarious political situation, rebel recruitment meetings were said by local residents to have been an open secret in Bobo-Dioulasso at the time around the attempted coup of 19 September 2002, when the Forces Nouvelles coordinated attacks on the cities of Korhogo, Bouaké, and Abidjan. Some former fighters claimed to have been recruited as early as 1999 or 2000, while others only crossed the border in 2004.
In the face of his neighbors’ denunciation, he had decided to “be guarded” (se méfier) toward everyone. He did not speak to people as he would before the war. The one and only person he had told about his time in Côte d’Ivoire was his closest childhood friend. He did not deny that his life as a soldier had been privileged in many ways, and that he had gained access to resources and luxuries he had never before seen. But he now viewed the material advantages of joining up as immoral, and those who continued to indulge in that lifestyle as weak and apathetic:
When I left over there [Côte d’Ivoire] to come [back home], I noticed something in the old pals that I went with before. I noticed something. Even if there are ten of them, standing. If I alone, I approach them to stand among the ten, within five minutes or something like that, I will see just perhaps two persons next to me, plus me three; or just me and someone else, two. Other than that, those other nine there [whistles] they’re gone. When I noticed that too, I am guarded towards everyone. I don’t talk to anyone. I don’t visit people as one should. We meet on the road, we greet, we pass, that’s it. I have no friends. I have no girlfriends. So, I stay like that.
Like the other ex-combatants I met, Idrissa felt that his commanders had lost sight of the movement’s cause and were now simply “harassing people” at the ubiquitous roadblocks, as well as in the increasing armed robberies and carjackings in northern Côte d’Ivoire since the signing of the 2007 peace agreements. This sentiment contributed to his perception of rebel life as immoral and self-indulgent. Although he might have argued that enlisting had been a “clever” choice in order to provide for himself, Idrissa now perceived the “easy life” of being a soldier as being without prospects, as being indulgent, and only serving the present. He saw himself as better than that; he had greater capabilities of taking care of himself than had those remaining “over there” as soldiers, who he believed remained out of a lack of other options.
Everyone was searching [for wealth] in it [the war]. Those who are clever, they cleared out. And those who have nothing to do: who don’t know what to do with their lives, they are still in it. Harassing people. If I liked the easy life, I would still be over there. I was well fed, well dressed, and well equipped. Life doesn’t exceed that but you have to search for tomorrow.
Aware of the Burkinabe authorities’ wariness of the presence of a considerable number of ex-combatants in the city, Idrissa was articulating a prospect for himself as a good citizen, who would provide for himself through an honest trade (he has trained as both a welder and a mason), rather than relying on his connections or skills as a rebel soldier. In this sense, he, too, was “starting over from scratch,” having to reconfigure his emplacement in the neighborhood as an outsider, despite his past history there. As it turned out, Idrissa was hired by the largest security company in Bobo-Dioulasso, but he insisted that he had said nothing of his past as a rebel security officer in Côte d’Ivoire:
Once that I myself I knew that we are not even liked by our [Burkinabe] authorities, especially the gendarmes, so me, I tried to remove myself. From this employment. An employment that holds no future. I’m not in it. That’s why me too, I looked to come and move in here. I have come, I want to try to practice my trade as well. I will not be ordered around by someone else.
Despite his reference to his own agency in turning his back on his rebel past, a sense of exclusion underlies this quote. While many of Idrissa’s reflections present him as strong and independent enough to resist the “easy life” of the rebellion and return to honest hard work in Burkina Faso, he spoke of the word “rebel” being imposed upon him, it being “their label.” In this quote “their” refers to potential employers, judging him to be undeserving of a job; but it also applies to the authorities and, in a broader sense, to the Burkinabe public in general. In his everyday life, his sense of exclusion was primarily felt in relation to his neighbors and former “pals” in Sarfalao.
Me myself I don’t want the label rebel … “rebel” … No, no, no. So, wherever I go, maybe it’s people who will come and ask me if I was in the rebellion; other than that, it’s not me, my mouth that will say that. Because I don’t want their label. Yeah. For it to be in my records. The word “rebel,” it’s a bad omen. It’s a bad omen.
Setting aside Idrissa’s claims to the moral high ground, as other studies of wartime mobilization have shown (Hoffman 2011a; Honwana 2005; Richards 1996; Utas 2003; Vigh 2006), joining the rebel movement and becoming a soldier was generally experienced by young Burkinabe men as an empowering adventure that changed their outlook on life and provided opportunities for enrichment. Engaging in armed combat was rarely described as shocking or traumatizing, but rather as a job that had to be done. In this way, military recruitment was perceived not primarily as an ideological choice to join the ranks of the rebels under the banner of a common cause, but rather as a different form of labor migration that had arisen due to changing sociopolitical circumstances (see also Hagberg and Ouattara 2010: 111). Rather than perceiving the quest for enrichment as an immoral act, outside the normal social order, this perception invites us “to think of violence as literal work, to think of the labor of war as labor” (Hoffman 2011b: 34), as Danny Hoffman has suggested in relation to young combatants in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
In this way, military recruitment presented at once a rupture with societal norms (in the sense of being a self-fulfilling search for adventure and engaging in immoral activities) and a continuation of the mobility practices of earlier generations of young men (in the sense of a labor migration trajectory intended to provide an income in the context of overwhelming youth unemployment).14
For Idrissa, his return to Bobo-Dioulasso after deserting from the Forces Nouvelles rebel forces in Côte d’Ivoire was in many ways parallel to the return of (other) Burkinabe labor migrants: his was a voluntary move home, based on the intention of investing in his emplacement in the city. While not impossible, this intention proved harder to put into practice due, in large part, to the changes in his social terrain that his recruitment had entailed. The moral implications of the labels attached to him by his neighbors and former friends—“rebel” and “bandit”—signified a drastic transformation of his social embeddedness, or emplacement, in the place he called home, leaving him socially isolated and searching for new moral bearings. Through the discourses and attitudes of his neighbors, then, his migrant trajectory was transformed into a potentially life-rupturing form of mobility (cf. Barrett 2009). This subjective experience of displacement did not imply, however, that Idrissa was left apathetic and without choice. He was considering his options and gradually investing in a new process of emplacement, seeking morally viable forms of employment and adopting a new attitude—of “being guarded”—in his interactions in the neighborhood. In analyzing Idrissa’s experiences through the dialectics of displacement and emplacement in this way illustrates the processual and variable character of involuntary dislocation and the possibility for agency under such circumstances.
This article has suggested an overlapping series of conceptual ideas to facilitate the empirical study of subjective experiences and ongoing processes of displacement and emplacement in the context of armed conflict. In this conceptual discussion, forced displacement from Côte d’Ivoire was related to the longer history of regional mobility, in an effort to formulate an understanding of displacement that lends itself to qualitative analysis. Following Barrett (2009), displacement is understood here as a life-rupturing form of mobility, which may be explored empirically in the broader context of lifelong processes of mobility. In this way, the dialectical relationship between displacement and emplacement does not imply a continuum of more or less “homelike” social positionings, but instead enables an analysis of how subjective experiences of both life-sustaining and life-rupturing forms of mobility are articulated in relation to more or less restrictive social forces, including more or less visible forms of structural violence.
By juxtaposing three different migrant experiences—(1) first-generation immigrants to Côte d’Ivoire returning involuntarily during the Ivorian crisis; (2) their young adult children following suit, arriving in their parents’ country of origin for the first time; and (3) Burkinabe recruits to the Forces Nouvelles rebel forces in Côte d’Ivoire returning home to a radically transformed social terrain—we see that the extent to which the move from Côte d’Ivoire to Burkina Faso was experienced as disempowering by the returning migrants depended on a variety of factors. These included whether or not they had long-standing ties with the country, city, or neighborhood through family members or their own shuttling back and forth; the relative sense of deprivation of the individual migrant; and the moral discourses surrounding their particular trajectories on both sides of the border.
Analysis of displacement as a variable social process begins with the assumption that both migrants and refugees are engaged in a continuous process of weighing their options and making decisions, based on an ongoing assessment of their changing social terrain (see also Gill, Caletrio, Mason 2011: 301–302). Rather than putting groups of migrants into categories that reflect juridico-administrative concerns, rather than lived experience, this article has employed and advocated the open-ended anthropological analysis of wartime mobilities through the dialectics of displacement and emplacement.
The author is grateful to Mats Utas and Judith Verweijen for their comments on an earlier version of this article and to Sten Hagberg for his support and encouragement during the collection and analysis of the material on which it is based.
According to UN terminology, all of West Africa is considered a subregion of the African continent. But here, I use the term more loosely to refer to a subdivision of this larger geographical unit, spanning Mali, Guinea, and Liberia in the west to Benin and Niger in the east.
For the purposes of understanding the return of Burkinabe labor migrants to Burkina Faso in the context of the Ivorian crisis, recent studies have contributed to a deconstruction of that perceived natural link, both within the above-mentioned migration-related research and in studies of autochthony and belonging (e.g., Ceuppens and Geschiere 2005; Cutolo 2009; Geschiere 2009; Geschiere and Nyamnjoh 2000; Hilgers 2011).
For example, Sylvie Bredeloup (2006: 185) notes that almost 80,000 refugees followed in 2001, and Mahamadou Zongo (2003: 113) notes that the official total increased from 158,155 in March 2003 to almost 200,000 refugees in Burkina Faso the following month. Kerstin Bauer (2006: 2) refers to reports of a total of 366,000 “returnees” as of December 2003.
Zongo (2010b: 25) suggests that the difficulty in assessing reliable numbers of return migrants was not in itself a result of the Ivorian crisis, but is traceable to the lack of distinction between return migrants and foreign immigrants to Burkina Faso in censuses before 1996, and the “extreme mobility” of migrants between Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso.
This definitional challenge is not merely academic, since the number of displaced people, and their legal status, became a highly sensitive political and diplomatic issue on both sides of the border (see Hagberg and Bjarnesen 2011). In Côte d’Ivoire, the question of who has the right to be recognized as an Ivorian citizen has been at the heart of the political conflict, not least through the rhetoric of ivoirité, which has dominated Ivorian politics since the mid-1990s (see Akindès 2003; Arnaut 2008; Beauchemin 2005; Collett 2006; Dozon 2000, 2006; Olukoshi and Sall 2004).
As an illustration of the problem of numbers alluded to in this section, Zongo notes that these estimates from the Ivorian population census of 1998 are unreliable for several reasons, most notably because of the contested definition of what constitutes an Ivorian—and by extension a Burkinabe—citizen, as well as the obvious interest in inflating immigration statistics to further the xenophobic logic of the ivoirité ideologues.
This concern contradicted the official declaration of solidarity with the diaspora in the context of the public “rescue mission” launched in December 2002 by the Burkinabe state—Opération Bayiri; bayiri being the Mooré word for “motherland.” This was organized to repatriate Burkinabe citizens living in Côte d’Ivoire (Banégas and Marshall-Fratani 2003: 10; see also Banégas and Otayek 2003; Bredeloup 2006). Despite its stated intentions of coming to the aid of the Burkinabe diaspora in Côte d’Ivoire, the operation was only able to repatriate approximately 10,000 citizens—a negligible percentage of the total population of Burkinabes in Côte d’Ivoire (Action-Sociale 2003: 8; SP/CONASUR et al. 2004).
At the same time, however, the Burkinabe authorities’ official view of rapatriés tells us relatively little about how individual migrants or families actually experienced the forced return to Burkina Faso. As Riester’s own figures illustrate, government intervention in the mass arrival of Burkinabe citizens from Côte d’Ivoire was negligible, with the overwhelming majority of people left to their own devices—both in terms of material assistance and in terms of how to relate to their new surroundings and neighbors. Attitudes toward rapatriés were much more varied and ambivalent than simply government-induced resentment, as were the individual and collective responses to such sentiments by the rapatriés themselves.
Although such statements may have been somewhat rhetorical—a way of claiming agency despite their forced displacement—it is not surprising that the remaining refugees in Sarfalao in 2010 would be intent on settling down there, since most refugees arrived in the period 2001–2004. Although the escalation of the conflict in the aftermath of the November 2010 presidential elections confirmed the impressions of a lingering political crisis, rather than a durable peace, many refugees intent on returning to Côte d’Ivoire benefited from the relative calm following the signing of the 2007 Ouagadougou peace agreement (Accords Politiques de Ouagadougou) and were no longer available to the ethnographer in Sarfalao.
In November 2004 President Gbagbo ordered his troops to retake the rebel-held north, and the air force launched bombing raids on Bouaké and several other northern towns, including Korhogo. In these attacks, French troop positions were hit by Ivorian planes, resulting in the death of nine French soldiers. France launched retaliatory attacks against the Ivorian air force. Gbagbo later said the strike on French troops had been in error, but the French action sparked antiforeigner riots in Abidjan and several southern towns, with businesses owned by foreigners looted and destroyed. Some 10,000 French citizens resident in Côte d’Ivoire were evacuated, and tens of thousands of African migrants fled after hundreds had been killed in the violence.
The acquisition of cultivable land was facilitated by the traditional institution known as the tutorat, which prescribed the welcoming of strangers and their provision with agricultural land in exchange for a share of their produce and, more important, the establishment of a moral obligation of “gratitude” that could be passed from one generation to the next (Chauveau 2006: 214–215).
“The old [woman]”—a common nickname for one’s mother.
FCFA 25,000 is equivalent to approximately USD 42.
As Mats Utas has shown in his study of the Liberian civil war (Utas 2003), these two aspects of youth mobility and masculinity do have historical precedents in the region, for example, in the legend of Sunjata Keita, who, despite being of royal descent, was born into a marginal position, being both the son of the king’s third wife and a cripple. As Utas argues, this legend—which is found in different forms across the West African region—not only alludes to modern migrant trajectories in a general sense (by which the migrant is expected to gather strength during his absence, only to return home, empowered and successful), but also speaks to the antisocial behavior of the “rebel hero” (Utas 2003: 140), who is obliged to engage in antisocial behavior in order to gain personal status and power.
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