GRAND BASSAM –– Militants opened fire on a beach in Ivory Coast yesterday, killing at least 18 people. One person on the beach revealed how she and her baby managed to survive.
“It was a miracle the baby didn’t cry,” said 32-year-old Charline Burton, who described how she hid for two hours in a toilet at a hotel in Grand Bassam with her one-year-old daughter while gunmen searched rooms around her.
“We could hear them shooting, so we could hear that they were going right next to where we were,” she said.
The Belgian national was in the seaside town of Grand Bassam, 40 kilometres from Ivory Coast’s economic capital Abidjan, yesterday with her husband and two daughters when gunmen opened fire in front of them on the beach. They saw people running and, wearing only swimwear, got up and ran too.
“We started escaping and I lost my husband. Each of us had a kid in our hand,” she said.
“I was totally lost and didn’t know what to do. I was with my baby. I entered a bathroom and we were there stuck for two hours; maybe three.”
The Burtons, along with dozens of other families, were having lunch at the resort in the small coastal town when men wearing balaclavas and armed with Kalashnikovs and grenades stormed the beach.
Grand Bassam is the country’s former capital and a UNESCO World Heritage site, packed with French colonial architecture.
Less than an hour from Abidjan, it is a popular weekend destination for Ivorians and foreign nationals who want to get away from the busy city.
What started out as a family day trip for the Burtons ended in horror.
“I was crying and a guy was telling me, ‘Try to stay calm, you need to stay calm’.
“And indeed I needed to stay calm because the baby couldn’t cry.
“I really had to make sure the baby didn’t cry,” said Burton, who explained she was terrified her baby would make a noise and lead the attackers to their hiding place.
“There was a small window [in the toilet] and we could see people pass. We could hear the shooting,” she explained.
“We were really scared, trying not to make any noise at all. I was so, so, so scared!”
Burton’s husband, meanwhile, had been ushered to a bedroom with other guests from the hotel where he lay on the floor with their three-year-old daughter, also desperately trying not to make any noise.
They all finally got out when the Ivorian army arrived and rounded people up and took them to a nearby church.
“All the tears I had not been crying in that toilet, I cried them later on.
“I was super-shocked and crying all the time. I just couldn’t stop,” she said.
Burton and her family managed to get to safety, but 16 people were killed that afternoon, including four foreign nationals and two people from the Ivory Coast Special Forces.
The Ivorian army killed three of the attackers, not six as earlier reported.
By the early evening President Alassane Ouattara visited the site of the attacks and tried to reassure the country that the situation was under control.
“These cowardly attacks by terrorists will not be tolerated,” Ouattara said.
“We salute the bravery and the cold blood of our defence forces and security,” he went on to say, adding that they would “strengthen the security of Grand Bassam, Abidjan and the entire country”.
At the same time, in a statement on social media, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) claimed the attack.
The group has previously said it was behind recent attacks in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital, and Bamako, the capital of Mali.
While the government had beefed up security in Abidjan following those attacks in Mali and Burkina Faso, no one was expecting attackers would target the small, sleepy town of Grand Bassam. Abidjan is the economic capital of the country, which is the world’s leading producer of cocoa.
Since the civil conflict ended in 2011, Ivory Coast has become attractive to investors and now has one of the fastest growing economies on the continent.
The African Development Bank moved its headquarters from Tunis to Abidjan after a ten-year hiatus and Abidjan is due to host the Africa CEO Forum in just a few weeks.
Officials in Paris said France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Marc Ayrault and Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve would travel to Abidjan in a show of solidarity with the country.