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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 5, 2011

War from afar
Dr. Zunon reflects on recent past while Ivorian history is in the making

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — Denis Zunon is a long way from his homeland — Cote d’Ivoire in West Africa. He says, if he were a young man, he would be there now — fighting.

But he is 69, an American citizen, and settled in a suburban Guilderland home with his wife, Ellen, and two children, now young adults themselves.

Dr. Zunon’s words about fighting contrast with his gentle manner. He speaks of his own surname like the professor he was. “Zu” means “many,” and the suffix “non” means “the fact of being,” he says so that the name “Zunon” means “multiplicity.”

For much of his life, Dr. Zunon strove to bring multiplicity to his homeland, to empower native Africans. He and his wife planned to stay there and still have an unfinished home in the Cote d’Ivoire.

Dr. Zunon reads newspapers from Africa now and scans the Internet for news of home.

The crisis in Cote d’Ivoire has gotten much less coverage than other trouble spots in Africa and the Middle East.

A French colony that was granted independence in 1960, the Cote d’Ivoire was mostly prosperous and peaceful during decades of rule by Félix Houphouet-Boigny who died in 1993. His had been largely a single-party government and some said the Baoulé chief ruled with an iron fist; students and civil servants had protested corruption in 1990.

Houphouet-Boigny’s successor, Henri Konan Bédié, was overthrown by a military coup in 1999. The following year, Laurent Gbagbo was elected over the general, Robert Guéi, who had launched the coup, and in 2002 there was an armed uprising — a civil war — in which Guéi was killed and thousands of homes were burned or bulldozed.

Although Gbagbo’s term expired in 2005, elections weren’t held until 2010 because of the unrest. In the first-round election, Gbagbo got 38 percent of the vote, Allasane Ouattara got 32 percent, and Bédié came in third, according to several news services including Reuters.

So a run-off election with the top two candidates — Gbagbo and Ouattara — was held on Nov. 28, 2010.

“One of my nephews called that day and said, ‘We have been attacked,’” recalled Dr. Zunon. His nephew lives in the village of Niouboua, where Dr. Zunon was raised; it served as a polling place for several outlying villages.

Dr. Zunon was told that armed rebels — outsiders, not known to the villagers — had shot and killed the gendarme who was there to oversee the voting. They wounded many villagers with machetes and burned 15 homes, including two belonging to Dr. Zunon’s uncles.

“The villagers ran into the bush,” he said; the voting was effectively ended.

On the same day, marauders in Issia — the hometown of Dr. Zunon’s mother — killed 30 people, the Zunons were told. They have been unable to make contact with Dr. Zunon’s nephews since early December.

The Constitutional Council declared the vote in seven northern departments unlawful and said Gbagbo won with 51 percent of the vote. The Electoral Commission, however, said Ouattara won with 54 percent of the vote — a position backed by the United Nations, France, and the United States.

Gbagbo was entrenched in Abidjan, the former capital city, until April 11 when he, his wife, and his son were captured in a raid and taken to Ouattara’s headquarters. According to a BBC account filed by U.N. correspondent Barbara Plett, as U.N. helicopters bombarded Gbagbo’s arsenal, his spokesman condemned what he called “illegal acts” and “war crimes” aimed at assassinating Gbagbo. Plett also reports on the Russian foreign minister questioning the legality of the air strikes, suggesting the U.N. peacekeepers may have overstepped their mandate to be neutral, and the chairman of the African Union declaring that foreign military intervention was unjustified. In return, the head of the U.N. peacekeeping operations, Alain Le Roy, cited the growing threat from Gbagbo’s heavy weapons and the sharp escalation of Gbagbo’s forces shelling civilians.

Killing continues as hundreds of thousands have been displaced by the chaos. A number of neutral, not-for-profit organizations are trying to help.

“The security situation in Cote d’Ivoire remains unsettled, and a massive inflow of aid is needed,” the International Committee of the Red Cross posted on its website on April 14. “For nearly two weeks now we have been receiving hundreds of distress calls every day,” said Dominique Liengme, the head of the ICRC delegation in Abidjan.

First-hand knowledge

For the Zunons, the conflict is personal. Dr. Zunon was born and raised in the Cote d’Ivoire and he and his wife, an American, spent the first 17 years of their marriage there, happily working and raising their children.

They say it is a false oversimplification to attribute the recent violence to the differences between Muslims, who live largely in the north, and Christians, in the south.

“We had Muslim neighbors and, for Ramadan, they would bring us the soup they make from millet to break their fast,” said Mrs. Zunon. “It started as political,” she said of the violence, “but became racial and ethnic.”

Dr. Zunon told the story of one of his uncles from the 1920s, the colonial era. “He was a Catholic and, before I was born, used to go to church…One Sunday, when he went to the church, the French Catholic priest said, ‘Sorry, this is the Mass for the white people.’…My uncle told the priest, ‘You’ll not see me in your church again until you have the same God for the whites as the blacks.’”

He became a Muslim and remained so the rest of his life. Dr. Zunon, with that, began reciting some of the Muslim prayers he had learned from his uncle.

Dr. Zunon also told of how, when he attended a Catholic elementary school in Daloa as a child, a bishop from Senegal came to preach. “His Muslim friends came to church with him,” said Dr. Zunon.

Gbagbo is a Catholic, and Ouattara has participated in both Muslim and Christian activities, the Zunons said.

Ouattarra was excluded from running under the rule of Bédié who emphasized “Ivority” and said Ouattara was not a citizen. In the 2000 election, Ouattara was disqualified by the Supreme Court for his alleged Burkinabé nationality, causing violent protests in the north.

The Cote d’Ivoire has a population of about 21 million of which a third are not citizens; Mrs. Zunon explained that, unlike in the United States where being born here ensures citizenship, generations of people have lived in the Cote d’Ivoire without being given citizenship.

“The eyes of colonization”

Niouboua, the small village near Daloa where Dr. Zunon was raised, is in the midst of coffee- and cocoa-growing country. “We were not rich,” Dr. Zunon says of his family. “My father was a philosopher….When there was a crisis in the village, he was the man to settle it.”

Dr. Zunon had an older brother and sister, who have died. His younger sister and her husband, who worked for a French bank, live in Paris.

“He was an only child with three siblings,” said Mrs. Zunon, since the children had different mothers.

Dr. Zunon, as a boy, went to Catholic missionary schools.

“The church is the eyes of colonization,” said Dr. Zunon.

Although he loves learning, Dr. Zunon, as a child, preferred playing soccer to going to school where corporal punishment was frequent. “They used to beat us up,” he said.

He recalls no fighting in the village where he grew up among the Christians — of which he is one — the Muslims — the faith his uncle adopted — and the animists.

Educational rebel

Dr. Zunon speaks several languages — Bété, a native African language and also the name of his tribe; French; and English. He has also studied German, Spanish, and Latin.

In the 1960s, Dr. Zunon went to high school in Abidjan, a large port city on the Atlantic coast, where he lived with relatives. A scholarship student, he completed his studies at the Lycée Classique and went on the National University of Abidjan, where he majored in English.

“I thought that would give me the opportunity to go everywhere in the world,” he said of studying English. As a student, he traveled twice to Germany and also to Sweden.

He had been awarded a scholarship, he said, to go to university in France, which served as a training ground for the elite natives of the Cote d’Ivoire who were assimilated into the government hierarchy.

“In the meantime, I organized a trip to the United States,” said Dr. Zunon, through the International Camp Counseling Program for the summer of 1970. “The amphitheater was full,” he recalled with a broad smile. “Everyone wanted to come.”

He enjoyed the counseling. His American campers would ask him questions like, “Can you kill a lion with your bare hands?” He’d answer, “Yes, I can do that.”

He also enjoyed traveling and the adventures he had as he stayed in different cities from Chicago to New York. All these years later, he vividly recalled a discussion he had with a family that hosted him in Chicago; as they talked about  democracy, his hosts touted America’s virtues.

“I said, ‘If you have democracy, where are the Indians [represented]? I don’t see any.’”

On the flight home from America, Dr. Zunon stopped in Paris. “Everything was so small compared to the skyscrapers in New York,” he said, “and the people were physically smaller, too.”

Back home, Dr. Zunon went to the Ministry of Education where the director said he had a place in a French university. “I was a rebel…I wanted to come back to school here,” Dr. Zunon said of the United States, and worked through the African-American Institute to do so.

He went to the State University of New York at Albany, which is where he met his wife who was in her senior year.

“I was majoring in French,’ said Mrs. Zunon. “I joined the French club to practice the language. He joined the French club to socialize…It was a friendship that blossomed into love.”

Dr. Zunon received both a master’s degree and a doctorate in public administration, graduating in May 1978.

Becoming a professor

“I went directly home,” he said.

“He wanted to do something for his country,” said Mrs. Zunon.

The university president at Abidjan told him, “We have work to do. We have to teach the young people.”

“I told Ellen, ‘Why don’t you come…If you like it, we can get married.’…So she comes,” recalled Dr. Zunon with a smile.

Mrs. Zunon made two extended stays to get to know his family. “They welcomed me,” she said. The couple married in 1980, and Dr. Zunon got his wife a job teaching English in the law school.

Meanwhile, Dr. Zunon had started teaching general management theory at the School of Economics at the University of Abidjan. In two years, he was named head of Business Administration at the school.

Although he was a good professor, he gave up his career at the university because of his frustration at not being able to empower native Africans.

“The French were in the majority…I was always like this,” he said, forming his hands into fists, as if ready to fight. “They were cheating. They hated me. It was supposed to have a multiplier effect on the local people,” he said of the effect of his teaching. Once local people were trained, they were supposed to be able to take over, but, said Dr. Zunon, “It turned out to be permanent employment for the French.”

There were 50,000 French technical assistants in the Cote d’Ivoire in 1980, said Mrs. Zunon.

“They’d get a lot of overtime and be paid a lot of money,” said Dr. Zunon. “It was no longer a multiplier effect…so I left the university in 1984.”

Meeting reality

That was the year their first child, Elizabeth, was born. Dr. Zunon joined the African Development Bank, similar to the World Bank, he said, working to develop agriculture and infrastructure. He spent 12 years with the bank, traveling all over Africa — to Guinea, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Morocco.

“I loved teaching but, with the bank, you meet the reality,” said Dr. Zunon. He told, for example, the story of a young university graduate who killed himself because he couldn’t find a job.

He told, too, of a visit to central Africa where the natives envied the economic growth of the Cote d’Ivoire. “I said, ‘You guys are sitting on…black volcanic land. Our parents cleared it with a machete to plant cocoa and coffee.’”

The Zunons said the Cote d’Ivoire was a good place to raise their two children. “They had school friends from all nationalities,” said Mrs. Zunon. “There were a lot of intermarried couples.”

The French word for a biracial person is “métis,” which, said Mrs. Zunon “has no stigma attached at all, unlike some of the words in English, like ‘mulatto.’”

She went on, “A lot of our friends were inter-racial couples, too.”

There are 60 different tribes in the Cote d’Ivoire and people of different religions lived harmoniously during the time the Zunons lived there, they said.

Mrs. Zunon recalled how, in the mid-1990s, she worked on a project for micro-enterprise development, with funding from the United Nations. Each of the Abidjan neighborhoods she worked in was with a different tribe, a different ethnic group.

“A lot of uncertainty”

When the bank restructured, Dr. Zunon took an early retirement and, with his severance pay, invested in a soap-making business with his cousin in Abidjan. As unrest increased, Mrs. Zunon and the couple’s two children moved to the United States and, from 1997 to 2001, he would commute back and forth.

“We were living with a lot of uncertainty,” Mrs. Zunon said. “Lizzie would ask, ‘When are we going home?’”

The phone in the Zunon household rang early in the morning on Christmas Day in 1999. They answered, thinking it would be holiday greetings from relatives. Instead, they heard of the coup d’état on Christmas Eve night.

With the civil war in 2002, Dr. Zunon said, “We lost everything.” For a while, he paid the rent for the soap-making facility out of his own pocket but, when he could no longer do so, “the owners put all the machinery outside in the rainy season,” he said.

Dr. Zunon was ill and joined his family here. “Ellen helped me get doctors’ appointments,” he said. He needed gall bladder surgery and treatment for a thyroid condition.

Dr. Zunon then did consulting work for the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Africa, from 2002 to 2004, working in Ethiopia. “Then I could send money to Ellen and the kids,” he said.

In January 2010, Dr. Zunon became a United States citizen.

The Zunons had originally planned to live in the Cote d’Ivoire but now the future there is unsure. They have a never-completed house in Daloa, near the village where Dr. Zunon was born and where he still has relatives. “It’s four walls and a roof,” said Mrs. Zunon. They also have 10 hectares of land near Daloa.

Anger and hope

Dr. Zunon is a Gbagbo supporter. They have much in common. Gbagbo is a Catholic, who was in college at the same time as Dr. Zunon. He holds a doctorate degree in history from the Sorbonne.

“When the one-party system throughout Africa was the thing, he is the one who challenged that,” said Dr. Zunon.

Dr. Zunon also knows Paul Yao-n’dre, the head of the Constitutional Council, which ruled that Gbagbo had won the Nov. 28, 2010 election. The two taught together at the University of Abidjan, were in the same union for higher education, and played on the same soccer team when faculty would take on students. “He’s a little guy but rough during the game,” said Dr. Zunon.

He also cites reforms he says Gbagbo instituted. “When he came to power, there was no competitive bidding; government contracts were automatically given to French companies,” said Dr. Zunon. “He opened the country up to other investors like the Russians and Chinese.”

Dr. Zunon leafs through a pile of African newspapers as his wife explains some are pro-Ouattara and some pro-Gbagbo although some of the pro-Gbagbo papers, like LeTemps, have been “totally destroyed,” she said.

One of the headlines claims 500,000 “fictives” or false votes went to Ouattara. The newspaper pictures official lists of numbers of voters that show more people voted than were registered.

“I’ve been asking myself since November, why would the United Nations rush in?” says Mrs. Zunon. “Why wouldn’t there be an accurate accounting of the votes?”

“All those figures exist,” agreed Dr. Zunon.

The Zunons are holding out hope that there will be a Senate hearing, being pushed by James Inhofe, a Republican Senator from Oklahoma.

“He tried to warn about the genocide but was brushed aside,” said Mrs. Zunon. “I would like to see some re-examination so the truth would come out. I would like to know how many civilians were slaughtered…That makes me very angry.”

She also said, “There’s so much false and unclear information out there, you don’t know what to believe.”

“For me,” said Dr. Zunon, “there must be international community. That does not exist when it comes to Africa. The U.N., for me, when it comes to Africa, is a joke…When it comes to Africa, international organization is hopelessly racist.”

“Second,” he went on, “Ouattara cannot govern that country…If he had an iota of personal pride or dignity, he would never do that to become president.”

He concluded, “I don’t think there will be peace in the Cote d’Ivoire…There will be fighting. That’s not what I wish.”

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