On the edge of the Ellipse, beyond the circular sidewalk that hugs the iron gate that hugs the trees that hug the South Lawn of the White House, 38 people stand single file, chanting for freedom. "We want French government to get out of Ivory Coast! Africa belongs to black people! We need French to get out! They killed too many Ivorians so far!"
They hold signs written in orange and green ink and wave tiny orange, green and white flags. They are Ivorians who live here and work here, still trying to maintain connection to a homeland. In calls and e-mails to friends, parents, brothers and sisters, they heard of the unrest there. How, they thought, could they do something about it while so far from home?
There are 4,000 or so Ivorians scattered across the Washington area, and through churches, their embassy and the grapevine, one told another about the demonstration and so they came yesterday -- lawyers, shuttle bus drivers, nurses, taking a day off to shout at the White House about a crisis back home, which has been on the brink of war since a cease-fire was broken earlier this month.
"We protest French holding my country," shouts Patrick Nangue on a megaphone. "My country was attacked by the French army. Rebels supported by the French have invaded our country. The rebels, armed by the French, took over our country. . . . The French government is killing people. We ask rebels to disarm. The French say Ivorians killed nine French army people. Now they gun down people of the Ivory Coast. They killed 63."
He points the megaphone toward the White House over the trees, leading a cheer: "What do we want?"
"Freedom!" the chorus shouts back.
It seems like a vain and faint complaint so far away from the recent unrest in the former French colony, but the protesters cling to hope that somebody powerful in the house behind the trees is listening.
"I think Bush is listening," says Josephine Seri, 59, a hair braider holding a sign that reads "Ivory Coast; French Troops Stop Shooting Unarmed Civilians."
Their chant is a complicated cry in a country where protests are common, but even more common is an ignorance of far-away tiny countries -- tiny countries that believe American power can help. Curious tourists walk by, point their cameras and click. Without apology, joggers run between the protesters and their leaders. A speed-walker with a Barbie Doll tan, white shorts and a cloud of sweet perfume passes without looking up. Workers in the distance climb cherry pickers to carefully place light bulbs on the National Christmas Tree.
Two women sitting on a park bench think the protesters must be angry at President Bush. Isn't that why most protesters gather? The women have no idea of where Ivory Coast is, what happened there recently, what its relationship to France is or why the protesters have gathered on this small patch out of earshot of the White House.
"They are from Africa?" asks Isabelina Perches, 18.
"They don't like Bush," offers Edith Lopez, 18.
"We don't like Bush," Perches says in sympathy.
The Ivorian civil war began in 2002 when rebels tried to overthrow President Laurent Gbagbo, whose economic policies displease the French government. After Ivory Coast gained independence in 1960, France signed an agreement to maintain a military presence there to protect the country if it were attacked.
Two weeks ago, Ivory Coast warplanes fatally shot nine of the French troops and an American aid worker. France retaliated, destroying the entire Ivorian air force. Rioting erupted, and France evacuated its citizens. Then some Ivorians claimed that French troops killed at least 63 unarmed people. The U.N. Security Council condemned what it called hate messages broadcast on television and radio, prompting Gbagbo to complain, according to news reports: "We are at war -- they want us to behave in the middle of a war as if we were on our way to the opera."
At the edge of the Ellipse, protest organizer Augustin Douoguih, who is a U.S. citizen, says he believes France is trying to overthrow Gbagbo and impose a president of France's choice. "Unarmed demonstrators were killed by the French army for an alleged killing of nine French soldiers by the Ivorian army," Douoguih says. He does not believe that French soldiers had actually been killed. "The French government never presented any proof of the killing to its Ivorian counterpart. . . . The French never produced any bodies."
Protester Andre Kipre says: "We cannot fight the French army. We know that. We are not stupid. There is no way any member of our army or president would order our military to bombard the French troops. If it did really happen, it was a mistake."
Nathalie Loiseau, a spokeswoman for the French Embassy in Washington, says it's unclear why the Ivorians here would claim that the French soldiers were not killed.
"The Ivorian president does not deny the soldiers were killed," Loiseau says. "Rockets were launched from Ivorian aircraft on the military camp. There were indeed casualties. These people, their bodies were sent back to France. Nobody is denying that."
The protesters pass around photos of Ivorians they say were maimed by French troops. Olivier Bollou, 41, a nurse who moved here 15 years ago, shouts: "I'm touched about the civilians getting killed. I'm very touched about the unarmed civilians killed by French troops. America is a strong country. I believe if the White House can hear us, it can influence the U.N., so truth can be known. We don't have any other way to make ourselves understandable."
He turned to the line of protesters, which, by now, was sagging.
"Are you guys tired?" Bollou shouts.
"Some of our brothers and sisters have not eaten for the past week," Bollou continues. "We have a chance to be here eating, to be here drinking. You guys should be ready to fight for our country. You shouldn't be tired. We are free in this country. I believe you should go through hell for freedom in the Ivory Coast."
Across the street and the barriers, past the gates and the guards that surround the White House, the curtains are parted. On the green lawn, a fountain is flowing while, nearby, tourists press themselves against the iron gates to get closer. From here, they cannot hear the protesters who are still shouting.