- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 16, 2003

SAN PEDRO, Ivory Coast Soldiers train their heavy machine guns on the mouth of San Pedro's port, defending the harbor that ships one-fifth of the world's cocoa beans from advancing rebels threatening to overrun it.

Ivory Coast, the world's No. 1 cocoa producer, is midway through the main harvest season and war has closed to less than a morning's drive away.

"There are five times more soldiers here now than before," said Bernard Koumassi, a shipping company representative at the port. "We have an agreement with the army to ensure that we can continue to export the cocoa."

Ivory Coast has been at war for nearly four months, and the fighting is now 60 miles from San Pedro, the country's second-largest port.

With each passing week, the gunfire, helicopter raids, troop movements and military checkpoints that terrorize the population also threaten this nation's most crucial agricultural product a crop used to make much of the world's chocolate.

Forty percent of the world's cocoa comes from Ivory Coast, and half of that passes through San Pedro.

Midway through the harvest, the port bustles with life forklifts scurrying from flatbeds to warehouses to freighters as more ships wait offshore for their turn to dock.

But there's also a palpable tension.

"Everyone wants to send their harvest at the same time, so there's a terrible congestion," said Francis N'Guessan, a supervisor at the port. "We're all afraid that the war is going to ruin everything."

The war began in September, when a rebel group tried to oust President Laurent Gbagbo and seized the northern half of the country. Cocoa prices soared to 17-year highs but settled slightly with an Oct. 17 truce in the north.

Two other rebel factions emerged in late November, capturing towns in the west of the former French colony. The conflict has since spread to the cocoa-rich southwest, with Liberian fighters known for their drug use and indiscriminate violence joining the rebel ranks.

The rebels accuse the southern-based government of fanning ethnic hatred, and they want Mr. Gbagbo to resign. Western rebels have identified San Pedro as a primary objective.

As French authorities, who have more than 2,000 soldiers in Ivory Coast, and West African mediators struggle to resolve the crisis, the war has wreaked havoc on the lives of all involved in the cocoa business.

A countrywide curfew has complicated the customary round-the-clock staffing of the port.

"We used to work all night with no problem," Mr. N'Guessan said. "Now we need armed escorts to do so."

For laborers who get cocoa beans out of dusty burlap sacks and onto conveyor belts that dump into multiton shipping containers, a strenuous and low-wage job has grown terrifying.

"The war has made it very hard to get to work every day," said laborer Bamba Moussa. "At the checkpoints, the soldiers think we're rebels because our families come from the north."

Mr. Moussa, 24, leads a team of eight workers, each of whom can earn nearly $7 a day, he said, if they rip open enough sacks of cocoa to fill 10 of the 2-ton shipping containers.

In the fertile region near San Pedro, farmers are abandoning thousands of acres of cocoa, leaving crops to rot in the fields as they flee the fighting.

On New Year's Day, Anne-Marie Bozoua awoke to the sound of gunfire and exploding grenades in Neka, a village near the Liberian border 70 miles from San Pedro.

"I thought it was our army celebrating the new year," she said from a Red Cross center for displaced people in San Pedro, where she was recovering from a bullet wound in her right arm and a rifle-butt blow to her head.

The insurgents "seized several cocoa trucks and filled three rice sacks with money they stole," Miss Bozoua said. "I saw them slit one man's throat and shoot another in the chest."

Just down the road from the Red Cross center are the walled-off compounds of some of the world's richest cocoa-export companies, where a stubborn public air of calm and normalcy persists.

"I don't know about others, but we have a good stock on hand," said Pierre Ouattara, an operations director for the cocoa branch of Archer Daniels Midland. While conceding that this year's harvest will fall short, he insisted that the cocoa export has "about the same rhythm as usual. We don't sense any panic."

But others tell a different story.

"The cocoa's not coming in at all," said a Lebanese merchant based in San Pedro who would give his name only as Attie.

Rebels seized 12 of his cocoa trucks, he said, and looted his storage facility and held his son hostage for three days.

By this time in years past, he said, he would have bought more than 20,000 tons of cocoa beans.

"This year, I haven't even done 3,000 tons yet," he said. "Our work is completely paralyzed."

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