People in Ivory Coast’s largest city have tired of youth gang members who have terrorized parts of Abidjan.
Abidjan residents say the young men and boys – some as young as 10 years old – have been linked to attacks, robberies and even murders.
The residents call these youth gangs “microbes,” the French word for germs.
“They are very dangerous elements,” said one woman about the groups, adding that they usually control local streets at night. A few days ago, she said, they attacked an internet cafe.
The gangs started in a crowded, poor neighborhood of Abidjan called Abobo. It is not known exactly how many microbes there are, but the best estimate is several hundred.
One man said that even when people catch gang members doing criminal acts and turn them over to police, they are seen back on the streets days later. Police do organize raids and arrest the microbes, but many get released quickly because they are so young.
“There is no follow-up, no justice,” the man said. “So next time we won’t take him to authorities, he will be lynched, and that’s all,” the man added.
Last month, angry residents killed a 19-year-old gang chief in the street. That attack fueled revenge attacks on citizens.
Some residents have set up their own self-defense groups to deal with the problem.
A man named Issa leads one of those groups. He said gang members are attacking mothers and parents in the neighborhood in “very violent” ways. He added that police had only a single car patrolling the neighborhood and this is not enough to protect residents. He compared the situation to being trapped with lions and not being able to defend yourself.
Some resident groups arm themselves with sticks and long knives while guarding the streets at night. But Issa said carrying defensive weapons did not stop the violence so they have now turned to a different method.
“We told ourselves we should try to establish trust between us and these kids,” he said. Residents are now trying to listen to gang members and try to understand what causes them to turn to crime.
Most of the gang members still have parents, but they mainly live away from them on the streets. One young man said he has nothing to eat at home because no one in his family has a job. “I had to take care of myself,” he said.
The government is trying to reach out to gang members. The government also has a program to protect vulnerable children. Leontine Zagba heads the program through Ivory Coast’s Ministry of Women, Family and Child Protection.
“When you have no self-esteem, you have nothing to lose and will do anything,” she said. The government is trying to help some gang members get their self-esteem back.
A test project last year sent about 70 teenagers to a rehabilitation center to learn work-related skills like mechanics, woodworking and sewing. But many former microbes still have trouble when they try to get a job.
I’m Bryan Lynn.
Words in This Story
gang – n. an organized group of criminals
germ – n. a microorganism that causes disease
patrol – v. top keep watch over an area by regularly walking or traveling through it
machete – n. a broad heavy knife often used as a weapon
vulnerable – adj. easily hurt or harmed physically, mentally or emotionally
self-esteem – n. confidence in one’s own worth or abilities
resident – n. a person who lives somewhere permanently
lynch – v. to kill someone for an alleged offense with or without a legal trial
kid – n. the informal term for a child or young person
teenager – n. a person aged 13 to 19